I inform the House that I have selected neither of the reasoned amendments.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is with some reluctance that I find myself here today. This is a Bill that I would have preferred not to introduce, but after 12 months of negotiations and three separate pay offers, the fire dispute has reached deadlock. Legislation is therefore necessary in the public interest and to protect public safety. Reform of the public services is one of this Government's key priorities. In recent months, we have pressed ahead with the modernisation of the fire service, the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, the introduction of a new system of fire cover based on actual risk, and a new White Paper that will be published shortly.
The Bill now before the House draws on the arbitration powers originally set out in the Fire Services Act 1947 but repealed in 1959. It will enable me—in England and Wales, but not Scotland—to make an order to do two things: first, under clause 1(1)(a), and subject to the negative resolution procedure, to set or modify the pay and conditions of service of fire brigade members; and secondly, under clause 1(1)(b), to give specific or general directions to the fire authorities about the use or disposal of property or facilities. Those combined powers will enable me to secure a pay and modernisation deal for the fire service if no agreement is reached through the normal process of industrial negotiations, and only after full consultation with the parties. That is the situation that we find ourselves in today.
This dispute dates back to May last year. Since then, the Fire Brigades Union has rejected three successive pay offers. The first was for 4 per cent., the second for 11 per cent., and the most recent was the employers' final 16 per cent. offer. Hon. Members will also recall that we have attempted to resolve the dispute through Sir George Bain's independent review of the fire service, and that we brought the parties together at ACAS where, after two months of discussion, they still failed to reach agreement.
The dispute is made even more difficult because, in recent months, the FBU executive has failed to carry its members with it. The executive has twice made recommendations to the members, including a recommendation to accept the employers' final offer, and has twice been overturned. We are therefore back to where we were last May, 12 months ago. The claim remains 40 per cent. for the firefighters and 50 per cent. for the control room staff, without any commitment to reform or modernisation of any kind. Under those circumstances, we have tried to break the deadlock and I am therefore bringing the Bill to the House.
The Secretary of State is effectively saying that because we have reached an impasse he has to present the legislation to the House. What estimate has he made of the likelihood of us not having reached that impasse had he involved himself directly in the negotiations earlier?
This is a matter of judgment, and I give the best of my judgment to the House. I have reported regularly to it on the negotiations and, after 12 months, I have made the judgment to move to a form of arbitration in legislation, after saying that I would be prepared to consider it. That is what I am presenting to the House.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I am very interested in the points that he is making. What consideration has he given to his imposition of a settlement to bring the dispute to an end being met with rejection by the union and by members, who could then take industrial action? What would he do at that point?
That is the difficult question that we have to answer in this matter, and I give the best of my judgment. If the House gives me those powers, there will still be a period before I can act—over two months. I hope that my hon. Friend will see from my speech that I am still encouraging negotiations and that there is still a lot of room for manoeuvre and agreement, but at the end of the day this is a free country where people make free decisions on whether they want to give their labour—that is why I am against the anti-strike legislation. But we all must make judgments, which is why I am giving the House my best judgment of how we can find agreement. The dispute affects this country's public safety, in respect of which all of us in the House have responsibilities.
The hon. Gentleman would do better to wait until he has heard my speech. Clearly, I have to address those circumstances.
I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister, but he made an aside in his response to Jeremy Corbyn that he is against anti-strike legislation. I understand that he has given the House an undertaking that the White Paper will consider whether there should be anti-strike legislation or an anti-strike agreement. I hope that he is not prejudging that White Paper.
It is true, as the right hon. Gentleman says, that I have promised the House that in the White Paper we will address ourselves to that essential principle. I shall still give my judgment, however, and I am entitled to it. A White Paper represents a Government's view on matters, and he must wait for that White Paper.
My main point about anti-strike legislation, whether people agree with that or not, is that it would take many months for it to go through the House and be achieved. I assume that that would do nothing more to solve the dispute. My judgment is that this can be done quickly, and it is an alternative beyond just sitting back and doing nothing. That is what I am addressing myself to today.
May I make a little headway? I will take an intervention later.
There has been a failure to reach agreement on the pay and modernisation deal. In addition, we are working against a background of wide-ranging national and local non-co-operation by the FBU and the continuing threat of strike action. In some parts of the country, old, badly located fire stations have been closed and replaced by new modern fire stations in areas of higher risk. That has taken place with the agreement of the local brigade. Even while the dispute has been on, those changes have been taking place in some areas while being resisted in others.
In some parts of the country, local brigades have opposed new fire stations. In two fire brigades, we have projects on stream for new control rooms shared with other emergency services. In other areas, joint control rooms have been blocked by the union. In some areas, there is flexible crewing or alternative shift patterns are in operation. In still others, firefighters are already using defibrillators and participating in co-responder schemes with the ambulance services, but elsewhere they are not. In too many areas, there are none of those things. Effectively, we have a postcode lottery for fire and rescue services, which is not acceptable.
Over the past year, the FBU has constantly called for the provision of new equipment to tackle the increased threat of terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear devices following the events of
The equipment essentially consists of mobile decontamination facilities where members of the public can be washed down, and it is absolutely necessary for them to be made available as soon as possible. It is unacceptable to the Government and to the people of this country for that equipment not to be available to them in the event of a terrorist incident. If the FBU will not co-operate, the Government will take action to provide that protection against terrorist attack by whatever means necessary.
In addition to the non-co-operation, the FBU continues to play cat and mouse with the Government through its extended threat of strike action. That has forced 19,000 members of the armed services to be kept on almost constant stand-by since last September. We have had only 15 days of strikes, but the cost to the public purse stands at over £100 million, largely due to the stand-by costs involved. On
The firefighting duties are having a progressively detrimental effect on our troops in Iraq and our capacity to fulfil a wide range of military duties and obligations. I have therefore agreed with the Secretary of State for Defence that the priority must be to relieve the armed forces in Iraq, and also to release those involved in firefighting for training and other important operational tasks. I have further agreed a release of 5,000 personnel from stand-by for firefighting duties with immediate effect. We will now have only 11,000 members of the armed forces available for firefighting duties, and by the end of the month we will be down to about 9,000 troops.
I want to spell out to the House exactly what those significant and continuing reductions to the number of armed forces personnel deployed on firefighting duties will mean in terms of public safety. In the event of a strike, they will result in significantly reduced fire and emergency cover. On a normal day, the number of fire appliances in the UK is about 3,000. The original deployment of green goddesses was about 829, crewed and supported by 19,000 military personnel. A reduction in the number of military personnel to 9,000 means the deployment of about 250 goddesses and 300 specialist vehicles.
The Defence Fire Service and the fire service inspectorate judge that such a reduction would significantly increase the risk to the public and members of the armed forces. If the FBU calls for further strikes, lives will be endangered and property put at risk. Under normal circumstances, 80 per cent. of the population of England and Wales receive a response within 10 minutes. During the last strike in February, that fell to 47 per cent., and with 9,000 troops involved it would fall to about 36 per cent. Under normal circumstances, 600,000 people would have to wait more than 20 minutes for a response. With 9,000 troops involved, that figure would rise to 10 million people waiting more than 20 minutes. I therefore call on the FBU to make it absolutely clear that there will be no further strike action while our armed forces continue to be engaged in Iraq.
The armed forces are still engaged in military action—providing security and carrying out vital humanitarian and reconstruction work. They are still at risk. They are still in danger. The conflict may be over, but the military still has numerous commitments and responsibilities.
I am not one of those who have been critical of the way in which my right hon. Friend has been involved in the current dispute, but I am concerned about the powers that he is taking to impose pay and conditions. Those powers may well be used fairly by this Government, but one can imagine what might happen in the future. At this stage, I am not sure that I can support the Bill.
I understand my hon. Friend's concern. The same thoughts are in my mind. I have to make a judgment one way or the other, however, and come to the House to justify it. I still hope that an agreement will be reached through collective negotiation.
As for the length of time for which the Bill will be available to this or any other Government, all that is happening now is my presentation of it as one way of dealing with the situation. Certain safeguards, or protections, are provided: for instance, I must consult all parties involved. Then, however, I must make a decision.
The proposed powers are based on those in the Fire Services Act 1947, which provided for arbitration largely because everyone recognised the importance of fire and other emergency services. Employment in those services is not like any other employment: public safety must be given greater priority. Given the circumstances of the dispute and the delay to which I have referred, I think I am right to present this legislation.
"strenuous personal efforts to assist in finding a resolution".
That is indeed a fact, which ought to be recognised by all.
My right hon. Friend must bear in mind, though, that there are real concerns about the Bill. It poses enormous problems, and it may not offer a solution. I will reluctantly support my right hon. Friend tonight, despite my doubts, but ultimately a negotiated framework will be needed to settle the dispute. That is the right way forward for the Government, for the employers—who have not enjoyed much credibility during this process—and for the FBU.
The FBU sets great store by the Burchill proposals. I am not competent to tell my right hon. Friend whether the proposals have merit, but I should like to know whether he thinks either Burchill or, as it were, son or daughter of Burchill could offer a framework in which meaningful negotiation on both pay and modernisation could begin.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind remarks. The proposal presented by Professor Burchill, who is independent chair of the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades, has a number of cost implications. The existing costs are quite heavy, and I consider the 16 per cent. offer adequate; but Burchill's is just one proposal—although all the evidence suggests that FBU members are about to reject the executive's recommendation and accept Burchill's. I believe they are to decide on
May I make a point relating to Professor Frank Burchill? The figure of £100 million has been mentioned. Many of us are at a loss to know how it was arrived at, as there is no evidence that fire authorities have done any costing.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all his efforts. If a negotiated settlement is reached before the Bill completes its progress, will he be in a position to abandon it?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. The £100 million to which I referred did not, in fact, relate to the Burchill proposals; it related to the stand-by cost—more than £2 million a day—of having forces ready and available.
Burchill accepts a negotiated wage framework, but has presented proposals which we and the employers consider effectively prevent any modernisation. There must be a balance between modernisation and the payment to which we are committed to make some advance contribution. If modernisation proposals are not accepted, there will be an extra cost. We are talking about the difference between the £30 million involved in the mark 1 deal—the 16 per cent. offer—and that extra cost.
All these matters can be discussed, but modernisation and reform must accompany a wage agreement. That was not at the heart of what Burchill proposed; in fact, he virtually vetoed any such possibility.
As for the time scale for the Bill and the possibility of a sunset clause, no judgment has yet been made, and I do not want to go into that now. I just want the Bill to be approved. It may prove unnecessary: I still believe that collective bargaining could finally settle the dispute.
Given that the Deputy Prime Minister is not the employer, I do not know why it is not possible for the Local Government Association or the fire authority employers to impose a pay deal. Why is the Bill necessary?
"give specific or general directions to fire authorities about the use or disposal of property or facilities".
Why does the Deputy Prime Minister feel that he needs that power? Does he want to set up regional fire authorities?
Having explored every avenue, I have brought the Bill to the House because neither party is prepared to move any further. There is deadlock, although I am still working constantly to secure an agreement.
As for whether the use of the facilities themselves will be necessary, I hope that if a difficult stage is reached during arbitration and fear is generated, fire stations will be available. On occasion even some fire authorities have made it clear that in such circumstances they would not be available. I had the rather quaint idea that the fire stations belonged to the public, although in one or two cases I have felt doubtful about whether that is so.
That was a flippant remark, but I think that hon. Members will know what I mean.
The Deputy Prime Minister has described in some detail the considerable dislocation experienced by our armed forces, who have had to stand in for the firefighters while being paid substantially less than what the firefighters currently receive. Even if the Deputy Prime Minister reduces the number on stand-by from 16,000 to 9,000, an intolerable burden will be imposed on the forces, and our capacity to train those men and women for emergency operations that might become necessary in future will be seriously damaged.
We take the advice of the Ministry of Defence on troop management. I am told that in certain circumstances, at certain levels of troop deployment, if a strike did not last longer than a certain period it could still be managed. The point is, though, that we must try to secure an agreement.
To be fair to the FBU, when the Iraq situation began it made it clear that it would not strike while we were involved. I now appeal to the union not to strike in the current circumstances, but it will decide on
On a number of occasions the Opposition have called for the Attorney-General to take out an injunction with the aim of protecting public safety. I have kept the Attorney-General fully informed of the situation as it has developed, and I have frequently told the House that it is up to him to decide whether legal action is in the public interest. The Bill provides a way forward in these difficult circumstances: it allows me to secure an arbitrated settlement concerning pay and conditions, and gives me a statutory duty to consult before placing an order before the House. I propose to consult both the national joint council and the statutory advisers to the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which includes a number of organisations and trade unions not represented in the national joint council.
The principles that will guide those consultations will be the same as those that have guided the negotiations. Any pay rise above inflation must be paid for by modernisation. The Government continue to stand ready to provide £30 million of transitional funding, in addition to the £100 million cost of the dispute so far—but we will not provide one penny more.
I am also very conscious that ordinary firefighters have received no increase in their basic pay since November 2001. That is particularly unjust for those who have not been party to this dispute—mainly the retained firefighters, including members of the Retained Firefighters Union—and have continued to work throughout, but have been denied their due entitlement to a pay settlement as soon as possible.
The powers in this Bill will also enable me, as well as making a decision about pay and proper consultation, to improve public safety and support the process of modernisation more widely, bearing in mind the primary concern for public safety as set out in our new guidelines on integrated risk management.
Hon. Members will be aware that one of the cornerstones of the current terms and conditions of service is that there must be a constant level of crewing at fire stations around the clock, regardless of daily fluctuations in the number of fires that actually occur. That is neither right nor sensible, and it is certainly not right to assume that fire cover cannot be provided in another way. No other emergency service operates on this basis. Through the powers provided in the Bill, I will be able to change existing constant crewing requirements and allow fire authorities to match staffing to the real risks posed by fire. The House—and indeed firefighters—should not misunderstand what I am saying: this is not about compulsory redundancies; it is not about attacking firefighters' second jobs; it is not about taking away rights and benefits that firefighters currently enjoy; it is about creating better ways of working for both managers and firefighters, and better provision for the public.
My right hon. Friend rightly points out that this Bill relates to England and Wales, and as a Scottish Member I have some concerns. Can he allay my fears and confirm that this will not end up in regional pay bargaining and agreements—that it will be a national agreement that cannot be split up?
On the agreement, if I were given the powers by this House and forced into using this legislation, it would apply only to England and Wales; it would not apply to Scotland, because it has a devolved Parliament. As to whether, as Bain recommended, the same privilege should be given to Wales, I ask my hon. Friend to await the White Paper, in which I shall give a judgment on that issue.
On regional wage bargaining, at present there is a national wage structure. If it is agreed to, I will be imposing not a regional wage structure but a national one to apply in Wales and in England. I am hopeful that there is still room to find an agreement while the House discusses this possibility.
The Deputy Prime Minister says that this is not an attack on firefighters' second jobs, and he has previously given a commitment—or the employers have, at least—that there will be no compulsory redundancies. Is he in a position to extend that commitment by saying that no existing firefighter will have a compulsory change in shift patterns imposed on him?
This is an important point, and I shall come exactly to it if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to complete my speech. There is a genuine fear among many firefighters that we are proposing to give total control to the fire chiefs, who will decide that all firefighters are to come in at 8 o'clock in the morning and work 24 hours a day, or for seven days. I am just as concerned about the Captain Blighs in this situation as I am about those who have common sense.
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that throughout the country different brigades have achieved different levels of modernisation. The Shropshire and Wrekin Fire Authority is probably the most modernised of any fire service. The only step that it has yet to take is the establishment of a joint operations centre, which it is planning to do in conjunction with the ambulance authority. That proposal has the support of the FBU in Shropshire—even though it contradicts national policy—and of Unison; all that is holding things up is, I am afraid, an apparent lack of help from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Will he examine this issue to see whether matters can be progressed?
I am coming to the issue of joint operations, but I believe that the situation is not exactly as the hon. Gentleman describes. He has in fact written to us about it, and we have made it clear time and again that we want joint control rooms. There are two or three places in which joint control rooms are used. There has been a great deal of controversy about whether the joint control room for Wiltshire should be divided by a brick wall or a glass wall, or whether the services should come together. However, in the past few days the FBU has agreed that it should be established, so there is movement.
My complaint is this: people may want national standards for wages, but why are there no national standards involving the best of the safety provisions, such as joint control rooms? That is the issue that I am trying to address. The standards were changed through the Fire Services Act 1959, and authorities were given the power to take decisions; before then, there was a national system under the terms of the 1947 Act. I have inherited a situation that, in my view, is not satisfactory.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the White Paper that was produced a couple of years ago, and was universally welcomed, was at least a step in the right direction? What happened to it, and why has it been so difficult to make progress on the ideas contained in it?
I, too, was interested in that point. It was the general secretary of the FBU who told me that a White Paper had been published and the Labour Government would not deliver on it. Apparently, it contained a proposal whereby certain powers would be given to fire service chiefs. The FBU did not like that, and preferred that the White Paper not be delivered. As I understand it, because we could not reach an agreement, nothing happened.
However, I have made it clear that there will be a White Paper, and I made it clear to the FBU that it is absolutely right that we modernise. It is not just a question of wages and conditions; a whole range of changes needs to be made, and that fact will be encompassed in the White Paper. Scotland has already produced a White Paper on its own services, and I am taking that into account. I shall shortly publish a White Paper that will cover many of these issues, and our response to the Bain recommendations.
I shall now try to make some progress. I hope that the House appreciates that I have tried to give way as much as I can, but it is taking up time. However, this is an important matter, and there are great concerns in the House that I must try to satisfy.
At present, the FBU bans all pre-arranged overtime in order to maximise the total labour force employed in the industry. It has been quite honest about this. It says that by maintaining the current overtime ban, it is able to keep 4,000 more firefighters in employment, which is a legitimate point for a trade union to make, but I am bound to say that I must ask what constitutes the better balance in the use of the labour force to provide the services that I want. Everyone wants to keep their labour force as large as possible, but I am not sure that many trade unions have been able to do that. This is where the argument concerning non-compulsory redundancies comes in—an issue that most unions would recognise in their negotiations.
Overtime is an essential issue. The ban on overtime denies the opportunity for ordinary firefighters to increase their pay by working overtime as a firefighter, and creates the current absurd situation in which it is acceptable for a trained firefighter to work overtime as a minicab driver, but not to work overtime using his skills and training as a fireman. Yet the hourly rate of pay is far greater than that for driving cabs, cleaning windows or gardening—jobs that some of these guys get involved in. I cannot accept that the skills of highly professional firefighters should not be used in overtime if they wish—if it is their choice—and should be used instead in driving a cab, digging a garden or cleaning windows. This rather absurd situation is in need of change.
Currently there is also a "one size fits all" shift pattern. It is known as the 2-2-4 pattern, whereby firefighters work two days followed by two nights, and then have four days off. I have no argument with that principle. Changing that system would allow for better ways of working, but it would not mean firefighters being forced to work unreasonable and unpredictable shifts. They have fears about that, and we have to satisfy them. Throughout the past 12 months I have constantly encountered misconceptions, uncertainty and a lack of proper dialogue between the two parties in these negotiations.
Ordinary firefighters are understandably concerned about both redundancy and shift pattern changes. My officials and the employers have done a great deal of work to assess the impact of modernisation on the overall manning level for the fire service, and on shift patterns. Between now and 2005-06, the fire service will lose 1,500 firefighters through compulsory retirement at age 55. There is the potential for a further 2,500 optional retirements under the scheme after 25 years of service, and in the normal course of events, there would be about 1,000 retirements on ill health grounds. In comparison to those figures, the final pay offer tabled by the employers would require a reduction in the total work force over the same period of about 1,900 staff—not the ridiculous figure of 10,000, which has been suggested to hon. Members here. That figure should be justified if it is to be used: it is a further misconception, sometimes deliberately deployed.
Reductions on the scale that I mentioned—I repeat that natural retirements are a key component—would be similar to the annual reduction in the labour force over the past 10 years. It has not remained constant, but has reduced under normal procedures—through non-recruitment or whatever—over the past 10 years. The labour force has not remained static, so the proposed changes to work patterns are not a radical departure from what has happened in the past.
The Deputy Prime Minister is extremely eloquent about the fears—in his view, misguided—of the average firefighter. Having spent considerable time talking to the men—and the few women—who work in the Newark, Retford and Southwell fire stations, I agree with him. What he says makes sense and is honourably intentioned, but many firefighters have indeed either been misled or are subject to the fears that he mentioned. I respectfully suggest that, if those fears are to be allayed and some form of rational argument is to be produced on both sides, the Government should employ a better communications strategy.
I agree absolutely. I have been at the centre of negotiations, trying to push each party to agreement, and I must say that the communications abilities of the employers leave much to be desired. Sometimes when the communication is good, it is misinterpreted. That lies at the heart of the difficulties. I want to tell firefighters that they do the most important job in the country and they do it well. I am not saying that they do not do a good job, but it can be done differently and better. We recognise that they deserve better remuneration than they currently have, but increases have to be balanced with reform of the public services—the heart of the matter. Even if I had the most ideal communications systems—hon. Members know that I sometimes have problems with language, so I can hardly criticise others—it would not be everything, but it would make a difference.
My officials are working with employers on examples of how changes to the duty system would work in practice. The genuine fear is that if new powers are given to the bosses, they will do what the hell they like with them. We must allay those fears, however irrational we think they are. That is why I have asked the employers to develop concrete working examples of the impact of new shift patterns consistent with the new guidelines on the new integrated risk management in five brigades, covering about 50 per cent. of the fire service's whole-time work force. Initial work by the fire service inspectorate shows that the fundamental nature of the existing duty shift system would not need to change, and that about 80 per cent. of firefighters could remain on exactly the same shift system in force today.
Firefighters are guaranteed a choice of family-friendly duty systems. Discussion must take place between the Fire Brigades Union and the owners—a hangover from my shipping days, I mean the employers. The matter can be settled only through discussion. I cannot settle it. I do not want to arbitrate, but it is common sense that the two parties should come to agreement. I have to weigh the public interest in the balance and justify the Government's approach to Parliament.
Hon. Members will know that I have become familiar with the chat lines—perhaps I should be more discreet about that—of the firefighters, who say what they think about the dispute. I have certainly picked up the signals as to what they think about me—and about Andy Gilchrist, but I leave that aside—and I am aware of their concern about long-term service payments, which are made after 15 years of service and obviously affect wages and final salary pensions. People near to retirement age are particularly concerned about whether, under the changes to long-service payments under the new system, they will still receive the same money after their 15 years' service. It is another genuine concern and I have asked the employers to deal with it. I believe that it would be comparatively simple to guarantee long-service payments to existing firefighters, but the FBU needs to discuss that with the employers. I am sure that many other concerns are worthy of discussion between the FBU and the employers, and I beg them to get talking while we are debating the Bill.
The Deputy Prime Minister was set off on an eloquent exposition by my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer, who asked him about the effectiveness of communications systems. What does he think about that in the light of how the FBU chose to present its case at the last stage of the ballot? There was a referral back to committee and decisions were taken at the fire stations. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that that assists communication for the FBU?
I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. All trade unions consult with their members in different ways, and the FBU sometimes does it through the brigade headquarters. During this dispute, the FBU has adopted two methods: it held a secret ballot to determine what action to take on the first 4 per cent. increase, but has also used a consultative conference. I am not going to criticise the process, but it is important to receive proper information, and the principles of communication are critical. That is why I am sure that Mr. Barry Legg will have no further involvement in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman asked me to say that.
It is not often that Ministers come before the House to seek support for a Bill that they hope they will not need to use. I still believe that it is possible to reach a negotiated settlement, and the weeks that it will take for the Bill to become law provide a further opportunity to reach a settlement, but both parties need to sit down and talk in order to understand the full details of the employers' offer. The dispute is as much about misconception, misinformation and misunderstanding as it is about the realities of what is proposed. I hope that what I have said today will provide some of the reassurance that ordinary firefighters require.
I repeat that the Bill is not about getting rid of second jobs; it is not about forcing firefighters to work unreasonable or unpredictable shifts; it is not about compulsory redundancies—none will arise from the changes in the Bill; but make no mistake: whether through a negotiated settlement or through arbitration as set out in the Bill, the fire service, like all public services, will reform and modernise. As I said in my statement on
Change is coming. Ordinary firefighters may require more information about the employers' final offer, but if the FBU does not accept it, I will use the arbitration powers in the Bill to bring about a settlement. That is necessary, given the history of this dispute and my obligation to maintain the highest levels of public safety and protection. I firmly believe that the measures in the Bill are in the best interests of our firefighters, the fire service and the safety of the general public, which is paramount to me and to the House. I commend the Bill to the House.
The Deputy Prime Minister began what I thought was one of his better speeches, if I may say so, with an expression of reluctance about bringing the Bill to the House. I am not surprised: this Bill should have been entirely unnecessary.
One year into the fire brigades dispute, the public will find it hard to know who to blame more—the Fire Brigades Union for its intransigence, or the Government for their incompetence.
The catalogue of incompetence is extensive. It starts with the Deputy Prime Minister's ill-fated intervention at the Local Government Association conference nearly a year ago, when he trailed the Government's intention to set up an independent inquiry, thereby stalling the ongoing negotiations. It continued with the slow-motion establishment of that inquiry, which was delayed by the lobbying and undue influence on the Labour party of its union paymasters. It further continued with the lethargic pace of the Bain inquiry, which took more than three months where other inquiries, such as that which produced the Wilberforce report, took less than two weeks. It was further exacerbated by the Government's schizophrenia—of which we heard more today—about who is in charge.
Who runs the negotiations? Is it the local employers, who are in the front line, or is it the Government, the paymasters who call the shots and exercise the veto? That uncertainty was ignominiously highlighted by the farcical overnight negotiation on
Although the Government have asserted in public that the management of the dispute is a matter for the employers and the unions, the truth is that they have intervened repeatedly to emphasise the Government's effective veto over any settlement. We heard that again at the end of the Deputy Prime Minister's speech, when he said that the 16 per cent. offer was by no means the final outcome.
Despite the rhetoric of devolution and local management, throughout the dispute central Government have treated local government as a very junior partner—indeed, almost as a branch office. Confusion over the respective roles of central and local government has dogged the dispute from day one. The lack of a clear Government response in the early stages encouraged the union executive to believe that it could get away with a massive increase with no strings attached. If the Government's determination to link any increase above inflation to changes in working practice had been set out clearly and forcefully at the outset, the dispute might have taken a very different course.
However, the incompetence has not been confined to the Government's handling of the negotiations. They have failed on many other fronts. For example, they failed—the Deputy Prime Minister again referred to the fact—to use the law to protect the public. The relevant laws were put in place by a previous Conservative Government, precisely to deal with that sort of situation.
The Government failed to provide the best equipment for our troops to use, wasting months before realising—under repeated pressure from the Opposition—that many modern fire engines were available if the Government just organised themselves properly. They failed again and again to protect the public because they could not decide whether they were macho, anti-union new Labour, or the unions'-friend, beer-and-sandwiches old Labour. That was evident in the comments from numerous different Ministers, especially through November of last year.
This bumbling tale of incompetence might seem funny were it not for the enormous risks facing the public. Throughout the year of this dispute and its attendant strikes, the nation has faced the double hazard of a war and a serious and continuing terrorist threat. That threat is not over yet. To have the firefighters, our first line of defence in any terrorist attack, on strike at this time is not just incompetent; it is irresponsible and entirely unacceptable.
It is fortunate that the public were protected—and the Government were to some extent rescued—by the sheer professionalism of our armed forces. It is only by their sterling efforts that we have got this far without major loss of life. Our armed forces acted at considerable cost, when they were suffering massive overstretch. They delivered for us at the cost of lost leave, lost training time, and extended tours in Northern Ireland.
I should also like to take this opportunity to put on record the Opposition's admiration for the retained firefighters, who have also provided invaluable support for our communities during the dispute—sadly, often in the face of intimidation.
My right hon. Friend is right to flag up the incredible and superb support of the retained firemen, many of whom are based in small village fire stations of the kind that can be found in his constituency and mine. They are very concerned about the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, as they fear that many small stations could be closed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that would be an appalling thing to happen, after the loyalty that they have shown?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister answered the point in a previous exchange, when I asked him whether he would guarantee—that was the word I used—that retained firefighters would not lose their jobs as a result of the reorganisation. The right hon. Gentleman gave me that guarantee. Moreover, I think I heard him say earlier that the retained firefighters would be involved in the process of resolution in the last stages of the reorganisation. That benefit is also well worth while.
First, there was no firefighters' strike throughout the entire time that the Conservative Government were in office. That was no accident, but I shall deal specifically with the point that the hon. Gentleman raises later in my speech. If I do not deal with that exact matter, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later on.
The situation that we are in today simply cannot go on. That is why the House of Commons has been put in the position of having to decide on the Bill before us. It is simply to rescue the British public from the consequences of the Government's incompetence.
This Bill is designed solely to bring the dispute to an end on the Government's terms. In his speech, the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the process as arbitration, but arbitrary action is not arbitration. Many of the people involved in the dispute will see the Government's response as arbitrary action. They may be right or wrong, but that is how they will see it.
Even from the Government's perspective, the Bill is a botched job, in three different ways. First, it does nothing to offer the ordinary firefighter a way out of the strike with dignity. The Government are quick to rebut any criticisms by branding them "inflammatory", yet now they propose to do something which, if it goes wrong, could leave a legacy of bitterness for decades.
The Government are giving the Deputy Prime Minister effectively unfettered power to impose pay and conditions and direct fire service assets. What the Government should do, in my judgment, is put a new clause in the Bill to require the FBU to have a secret, postal ballot—not a show of hands at fire stations—on the proposed settlement, before the relevant parts of the Bill come into effect. Then at least there would be one last shot at achieving an agreed outcome.
The Opposition will propose an amendment to that effect in Standing Committee. We hope that that will ensure that the voting practices of the FBU, which seem little better than the pit-head ballots that we thought that we had eradicated years ago, are put to bed once and for all. That would give the ordinary firefighters an opportunity to be truly represented within the FBU.
It is a nice notion that a ballot could be held on national pay and conditions. The element of pay could be the subject of a ballot, but the proposed changes will have many implications at local level. Those implications will differ greatly across the country. I therefore do not quite understand how people could be asked to ballot, on a set statement and using a set ballot paper, when the outcomes could be different in different parts of the country.
That is an extraordinary statement. The implication of what the hon. Gentleman has just said is that there can never be a resolution of the dispute. As I listened to the Deputy Prime Minister's speech, I learned a number of things that I had not known before. For example, I learned about the right hon. Gentleman's interpretation of matters such as compulsory redundancy and compulsory shift change. I suspect that many of my constituents—some of whom work in the same fire station as constituents of the Deputy Prime Minister—will not have been aware of the right hon. Gentleman's interpretation of those matters. It is very important that all firefighters have the right to express their views in an unintimidated and unfettered way, on the basis of all the available information. Of course that will not give him a route map for the next five years, but it will allow him to determine what his own union does on his behalf. That is the point of my proposal.
Secondly, the Bill gives the Deputy Prime Minister the right to impose a settlement, but fails to deal with the consequences. It gives him no power to act if the FBU continues to strike, either completely or in its most militant areas. I was surprised that Jeremy Corbyn pointed that out; his is a surprising corner for such an observation to come from. The absence of any such clause to deal with that matter robs the Bill of teeth. The Deputy Prime Minister may have the power to impose a pay settlement, but he has no power within the Bill to prevent a strike.
In what I have said was a good speech, the Deputy Prime Minister failed to tell the House what he will do to protect public safety if a strike occurs after he has imposed a settlement. If he cannot answer that simple question, the Bill will be pointless. We could be talking about a local, national or wildcat strike in the capital, in Liverpool or in a county such as Essex. We might be talking about a strike announced at long or short notice. It could be a long or short strike. This comes in a week in which the newspapers claim the existence of 50 suicide bombers inside the United Kingdom, along with sharp reductions on border checks that stop incoming terrorists from outside the UK.
My next line was written before the Deputy Prime Minister's speech. It said: "Are we to have 16,000 troops on stand-by in perpetuity?" We will not, apparently; the figure is 9,000.
I am slightly confused, and it is important for the whole country to understand where the official Opposition are coming from. The right hon. Gentleman describes the Bill as botched and pointless and he referred indirectly to no-strike clauses. Is it the intention of the Opposition to support the Bill tonight? If so, is it their intention in Committee to seek to insert a no-strike clause in the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to jump three or four pages ahead in my speech. We will not block the Bill tonight. In my judgment, the Bill is a defective vehicle, but it is a vehicle to try to bring an end to an overlong dispute. As a responsible Opposition, we will attempt to amend the Bill to give it the teeth it requires. I shall explain how in a second. We will also deal with the three errors or failures in the Bill. I have talked about the problem of not allowing the firefighters a dignified way out; the question of the enforced ballot. The second error concerns strikes. I am dealing with that and the hon. Gentleman will see what our approach is.
We will not have 16,000 troops on stand-by in perpetuity; the Deputy Prime Minister says that the figure will be 9,000. In perpetuity, that will be a crippling burden on our armed forces. Is that what our troops returning from Iraq will come back to? Will this mean the cancellation of yet more training exercises, in addition to the 12 we have lost already, damaging the combat readiness of our troops, and thereby putting at risk Britain's defences yet again?
Given that 9,000 troops are to be on stand-by at high-risks levels, what will the Deputy Prime Minister do in the event of a terrorist attack on a major British city? Will he gamble that the FBU does not go on strike? If it does, who will pay for the troop cover and the consequences of this inaction? Will it be his Department or the local authorities? I suspect we know the answer to that.
What is missing from the Bill is a clause that makes strike action by the FBU illegal for the period of high risk to the public. We will propose an amendment that puts strikes in the fire service on the same basis as under the police discipline code for the duration of the legislation.
I want to pursue this a little further. My constituency is dominated by areas of extremely high risk. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that, in perpetuity, the fire brigades would not have the right to take industrial action? That risk is there every day and not just during national emergencies.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, which is a good one. I shall come back to it. For the purposes of the Bill, the answer is, "For the duration of the Bill." I want to move on to what that duration should be. I shall return to the permanent risk issue at the end of my speech.
I take a strong view that, in the 21st century, it is wrong for an emergency service to use a 20th century tactic, strikes, to resolve their pay and conditions. That is the wrong approach. It is wrong for trade unions to be able to hold the public hostage. There is nothing uncivilised in that view, although I know that there is a difference across the Chamber. These constraints apply to the police and to the armed forces and are a necessity for those whose work is so important that the safety of the public depends upon them. That is the key issue.
The men and women who provide our communities with protection from fire should be proud, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, of their role in society. They are entitled to expect fair pay that recognises their skills and commitment, as well as fair conditions of work. But the communities that they serve are entitled in turn to expect them to be there when they are needed.
Presumably, if firefighters are to have the right to strike taken from them because of the essential nature of their work, which is not in dispute, that could also apply to other essential workers. The right hon. Gentleman is in effect proposing as part of Conservative policy that all essential workers should be denied the right to strike. If not, why should this apply to one section, firefighters, alone? If they are not to be allowed to strike, why should others? It seems to me that Conservative policy is to undermine democracy and to take the right to strike away from those involved in essential services.
The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent case in respect of essential workers, but it was not the case that I made. I referred to emergency services, and areas where people's lives are at risk. To give the hon. Gentleman a history lesson about a time when he was in this House, he may remember that, until the 1970s—the Deputy Prime Minister probably knows this—it was illegal for gas workers to go on strike, and it was a Tory Government who withdrew that provision, taking the view that the essential test was whether those concerned were emergency workers.
We want these men and women to get a fair deal—the deal they deserve. I believe that, in return, firefighters should give up the right to hold the public hostage by staging strikes. In a civilised society, in circumstances where there is no right to strike, there is quid pro quo; a recognition of the rights of the work force. That is why we should put in place a procedure that recognises and safeguards the individual and collective rights of firefighters.
But sometimes their constituents dispense with their services. It is the other way round—a consumers' strike. [Hon. Members: "You have to be working to go on strike."] I shall let the Deputy Prime Minister speak for himself in that respect.
Whether such a safeguard should be a pay review body, as exists for the police and other public sector workers, a radical alternative, such as final offer arbitration, or simply an old-fashioned mediation and arbitration process is frankly too complex—and raises passions too great—to be decided on on a hurried timetable and under the pressure of a dangerous strike.
As we heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, a White Paper is due shortly. We do not know which way that will come out, but it will, we presume, address dispute resolution in this sector. We shall therefore propose in Committee that the Bill be subject to a sunset clause at a time that will allow it to be replaced by a more permanent arrangement after the House has carefully considered the Government's own White Paper.
The Government must at last get to grips with the dispute. It has rumbled on too long with too many questions unanswered. Sadly, today's Bill fails to answer those questions. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he will do what he can to protect the public. This is his final opportunity to do so. He can start by accepting our amendments to the Bill. He can end by ensuring that the forthcoming White Paper includes an independent mechanism for determining fire service pay to ensure that firefighters are properly and fairly rewarded for their invaluable work, but which is also linked to an obligation not to strike. Only that will give a fear deal to firefighters and proper protection to the public. Only then will the Deputy Prime Minister have completed his job.
I am opposed to the Bill. That said, I do not support the Fire Brigades Union. Nor would any responsible trade unionist, particularly in the public sector, who looked at the FBU's claimed wage increase and its feeling that it need not be affected by the modernisation that has taken place across the whole public sector over not just the past six but probably the past 10 years. Those things are a sign of what I call bad leadership. I know a little about trade unions, having been an active trade unionist for more than 40 years.
I believe that the firefighters have been badly led, but I also believe that what would be done through the Bill is not a job for the Government. I am more convinced of that the longer the dispute has gone on. The Government are inevitably at arm's length on any public sector settlement, direct or indirect. There is no statutory machinery to settle disputes such as the one affecting the firefighters. That is something that should have been thought about long ago, particularly in view of the facts that it is 25 years since the last strike and that, by and large, that part of the public sector has been governed by legislation that has hung around since about 1947, when I was one year old.
The Bill is based on the legislation of 1947—a long time ago—which was designed for arbitration because of the special circumstances of the firefighters. What I have done is taken what was repealed by the Tories to put it in the Bill.
I am grateful for that intervention. I shall give my views on what is and is not arbitration later, but I firmly believe that it is not a job for Government, for two good reasons. One is the position that my right hon. Friend was in during the overnight negotiations on
Excuse me. I shall let my right hon. Friend intervene in a moment. If I am misreporting him, I regret it, but it was said that he was not around at 3 am, and no one was around to look at the settlement that had been made. Within an hour and a quarter of the start of a strike, that was said.
That morning, I was on my way to see a firm of solicitors on a constituency matter, and later I visited an engineering factory where hundreds of people work shifts and are up at 3 in the morning. I used to work shifts and worked all hours of day or night. I was upset that it appeared from the media—I hope that I am not misrepresenting my right hon. Friend—that central Government were not around at the end of the negotiations and, consequently, did not have time to look at the deal before the next strike kicked in at 9 am on the Friday. That is why I phoned my regional Whip. I was unhappy, as a Member of Parliament. I am pleased that no one suffered loss of life in a dispute that may have been related to professional people not being present, from what I heard.
I must make it clear that that is not true. It was put about by the general secretary of the union that I was not available. However, since I spoke to the general secretary of the TUC, the assistant general secretary of the TUC and the negotiators throughout the night—there were conversations at 2 am—I can say we were there right through to the end. Our objection was that we could not be given a copy of the agreement, and the union wanted to make an agreement without any costings. I could not accept that.
I hope that I have not misrepresented my right hon. Friend, but I thought that he said in his interview on Radio 4 that he had not had time to look at the deal and was not around. I do not mean anything malicious by saying that I did not like what I heard, and I phoned my regional Whip to say so at the time. I have kept quiet about that.
I do not think that this is a job for Government or Members of Parliament. Anyone who reads the Hansard record of this debate will see what was said in my right hon. Friend's opening speech and the interventions of David Davis about shift patterns and everything else. Those are not Government, but industrial relations matters. We need competent machinery in different industries to sort such problems out. This is not a matter for Government, and that is why I do not support the Bill.
My right hon. Friend has said several times that we need some form of arbitration, and that the Bill is about arbitration. It is not about arbitration as I understand it. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned arbitration, referring to two instances—Wilberforce and Bain. I was a working coal miner when Wilberforce was around, and it settled a dispute in which I had been involved for weeks. The Wilberforce inquiry was supported by all sides so that we could break the impasse in the mining industry, which had spread across the nation.
Bain was not like that. I am not saying that the FBU was wrong to absent itself from Bain, but I think that its leadership had a responsibility to put its case in front of Bain, to get a decision made by arbitration and get it out of the way so that we could move on to what we all hope will be changes in practices. I want certain changes in my constituency. Not allowing ambulances to stand on fire brigade yards so that they have to park a few yards down the road on children's playgrounds because the FBU do not like the idea of emergency services getting too close is one example. That happened years ago in my constituency, and it is disgraceful.
In the interests of getting a negotiated resolution before legislation imposes a resolution on the firefighters, does my right hon. Friend agree that much in the Frank Burchill report could assist us on the issue of arbitration? Is it not the case that other models, such as those used by ACAS, could greatly assist the Deputy Prime Minister in bringing to fruition his work in trying to resolve the dispute, without his having to impose one at great cost to the trade union movement?
From a sedentary position, the Deputy Prime Minister says that we have been to ACAS, and that process has failed. We have to accept that there are no grounds for settlement at arbitration, as we know it, with the FBU. That is a great shame. As I said earlier—I shall say it one more time and that will be it—there has been bad leadership by the FBU, which should have represented its members in respect of Bain, because nothing in society is for ever for any of us.
The idea that the Bill involves arbitration is wrong; it is an imposition. I am not convinced that imposing a settlement at this stage on a service where modernisation will have to come under any circumstances will take us any further forward than where we are today, unless some people feel that the threat of imposition will do so. I do not want to allude to too much, but my hon. Friend David Winnick intervened during the opening speech and referred to accepting that wages and conditions can be imposed on the public sector.
I find that principle unacceptable, and I say that as an active trade unionist and as a Member of Parliament who saw the coal industry, which had 4,500 jobs in my constituency, effectively destroyed by bad industrial relations. Massive changes have taken place. I am pleased to say that we went through the worst days years ago and unemployment in my area is less than the national average—it used to be twice as much when all the pits were open—but I would not want the pain that went through that industry because of the way things were handled to be repeated.
There is one thing that we have seen in this country: we can do without thousands of coal miners. We cannot do without firefighters. This is not an offer of arbitration but an imposition, and I honestly do not understand how it takes this industrial action any further forward.
I have to tell Mr. Davey, who will speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, that there was one thing in their amendment, which has not been selected, that I would have sooner seen in the Bill: some form of compulsory arbitration, where the arbiter would be independent of both parties. The Government cannot be independent of both parties in this instance. We should go down that route even if that were a bitter pill for all sides to take. I would be happier if that proposal, not what is in clause 1, were part of the Bill, because at least both sides—employers and employees—could blame someone else and then get on with providing a service that is vital for all our communities.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister received a letter—I think that it was dated yesterday—from the general secretary-elect of the TUC, in which he says that modernisation will be achieved only by negotiation, and what he says is absolutely true. All my history in the labour and trade union movement shows me that, in the end, that is how modernisation takes place and how we get things changed. Change does not happen by taking on people publicly, which is what this dispute boils down to on all sides. I have to tell my right hon. Friend that I will have been in the House 20 years next month and I have never knowingly gone against a Labour Whip in all that time, but I cannot accept the principle in the Bill and I will not vote with the Labour party tonight in Parliament.
I agree with Mr. Barron, with one exception: his criticism of his right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Those of us who have paid detailed attention to every aspect of this dispute cannot fault the energy that the Deputy Prime Minister has put into trying to find a solution. We may not have agreed with all his tactics, but his energy has been impressive. What was impressive about his speech was his passionate reluctance for the Bill. I have never seen a Minister be so passionately reluctant in introducing a Bill.
Perhaps we have taken a slightly different judgment from that of the Deputy Prime Minister. We will not support the Bill—in fact, we will vote against it—but that is a question of judgment. As we said in our reasoned amendment, which has not been selected, we think that there are other ways forward. The Bill will set a very dangerous precedent.
We have agreed with the Government's strategy throughout the dispute. Our criticisms have been about the tactics. The strategy is right. We need modernisation in the fire service. We need to ensure that no pay deal is agreed until we get that modernisation. Linking modernisation and pay was exactly right. Setting up the Bain review was right, and ensuring that the employers do not resile from the link between modernisation and pay, as was in danger of happening in the overnight discussions that have been mentioned, is essential.
The strategy is right, but there have been problems with the tactics. Some of the problems were outlined by David Davis, who is unfortunately not in his place, and I shall dwell on some of the other wrong tactics later. The Bill is certainly another wrong tactic by the Government, mainly because it will not end the dispute.
In my initial remarks, let me remind the House that we have supported the Government on their strategy throughout the fire strikes. We believe that those in the FBU need to make a move now. They have a generous offer in front of them. They agree with a lot of the reforms. When we speak not just to individual firefighters but to some of the FBU leaders, they agree that there needs to be reform. They cannot argue against the case for reform because it is so strong. The only problem is that they are not prepared to face up to reform and to push it through the membership.
As the Deputy Prime Minister reminded us, the FBU executive has twice agreed to the settlement that was on the table. Unfortunately, some FBU members have prevented a settlement from being reached at its conferences, so those at the FBU conferences have to move. That is why we believe that one of the mechanisms that the Government should adopt, rather than the Bill, is to require a secret postal ballot, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said. There is now a willingness to face reality among firefighters across the country; the arguments are being won.
I am not suggesting that the firefighters will accept the settlement willingly. Of course they will not—there will be almost as much reluctance as the Deputy Prime Minister showed today—but they could be persuaded. If they had the chance of a secret postal ballot, they would vote for the settlement. So the Government have been right about the strategy and the FBU should move, but the Bill is the wrong tactic for sorting out the dispute.
I was interested in the exchanges on misinformation, which is a very important point. Throughout the dispute, the FBU has not given the full picture to its members, as was clear when we debated the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 earlier this year. Indeed, I read out in that debate the letter that the FBU had sent to its members and Members of Parliament, and it completely misrepresented the implications of repealing section 19. The FBU has not done its members a service.
The employers may be to blame, as the Deputy Prime Minister implied, but there is one issue where the FBU and its members cannot be blamed. Some of the details of the settlement on offer have not been spelt out clearly enough. That partly relates to the fact that we do not know the implications for each locality of what will happen when the framework for modernisation is put in place. That is an inevitable consequence of devolving power so that the best modernisation settlement is reached for each of those areas. But there is more to it than that.
There are issues about pensions and what will happen with the pay deal in years 4 and 5. There are issues that relate to the timing of the introduction of the new pay scales. When I visited the fire station in Kingston and talked to FBU members and firefighters in my constituency, they told me that they wanted clarification of those issues and, following that meeting with local firefighters, I mentioned that to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. If we had greater clarification and the FBU and employers had helped to communicate what was on the table, I am sure that we would be further down the line. One argument for a secret postal ballot is that it would provide the opportunity to advance the real arguments, so that we could get rid of the misinformation and individual firefighters could understand in more detail, with greater sensitivity, the issues that they would vote on. That is why a secret postal ballot could be won.
Let me outline some of the reasons why we think that the Bill is wrong, which coincide with some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley. We think that there are problems with the practicalities of the Bill and worried that it is very centralist—the Government are getting involved in matters in which they should not get involved. But alternatives exist, as I have begun to outline. We are also concerned that the Bill could inflame matters and prevent a negotiated and peaceful resolution.
On practicalities, the question that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of State must answer is this: what happens if the Deputy Prime Minister uses this legislation to impose a settlement on firefighters and fire authorities, and firefighters refuse to work under the new conditions? What happens if they say, "We're still going to put out fires, we're going to go to our fire station, and we're going to work in the old ways. We're not going to accept the new rotas or the new contract that has been imposed by the Secretary of State"? Certainly, in a free society, they could take that action. What will the Government do in that situation? The Deputy Prime Minister has not spelled that out. There seem to be only two options: they could take action against the FBU, perhaps sequestering its assets, or they could sack firefighters. Those would be the only possible courses of action were the FBU members and firefighters to decide not to abide by the settlement imposed by the Deputy Prime Minister. If he does not agree, I am more than happy for him to intervene on me, but the logic of the avenue that he is pursuing suggests that those are the only ways, in practice, that he could make sure that his settlement was implemented.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will probably make some points about the employers' responsibilities in this matter. It would be quite wrong, however, to think that there is any question of sequestration under this legislation. That is not the case. As there is no legal requirement in that regard, the action of sequestration would not be taken. That action would be taken, however, were we to pursue outlawing the strikes. Having been through sequestration, I know what little effect it has on the matter.
I am grateful for the Deputy Prime Minister's clarification on the sequestration issue. Perhaps that is not an avenue that would be available under this legislation, although it might be available under the legislation that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden would like to see. The Deputy Prime Minister did not, however, answer the question of whether he would have to sack firefighters who refused to work under his imposed conditions. What would happen if they did so? He indicates from a sedentary position that the Minister of State will answer that important question.
I say this in a spirit of genuine, democratic debate, because that criticism could be levelled at all options. It could be made of the idea of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden to ban strikes, as it could of our proposals for independent compulsory arbitration. It could even apply to a secret postal ballot, as, in theory, the FBU could decide not to engage in one. We in Parliament, and the Deputy Prime Minister, as a member of the Government, need to think about what we would do were the FBU to refuse to co-operate in all reasonable situations. That is why I asked the Deputy Prime Minister what preparations the Government are making to deal with a situation in which there is no co-operation, even after a settlement has been imposed. If the firefighters refuse to accept modernisation and the solution offered, and the Deputy Prime Minister pursues the logic of that outcome by sacking them, how will he ensure fire cover? What preparations are being made to ensure that there is some way of tackling fires and providing for public safety?
Can the hon. Gentleman explain what would be the sanction under his model of compulsory arbitration if the firefighters refused to accept the decision of the arbitrator?
I have said that that criticism could be levelled at all our solutions—[Interruption.] If the Deputy Prime Minister would listen, given that that criticism could be levelled at all options, the question is which of the options will work best and be most acceptable, and which might persuade the FBU and its members to agree to the settlement and to modernisation. We must make that judgment. I believe that the judgment at which the Government have arrived is the wrong one. Their solution is less likely than ours to get the FBU and the firefighters to agree. In a free society, we must persuade people; otherwise, logically, we must start sacking people, which none of us, I hope, would want. The Government are therefore making a tactical error. Their solution will not persuade firefighters.
The Deputy Prime Minister says from a sedentary position that I do not know that. Of course not; it is my judgment. The point is that we must debate whether the Government have got the judgment right, and we think that they are wrong. Because of all the arguments put forward by, for example, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley, it will annoy trade unions up and down the country. They will see that some serious and important rights that they have treasured—and that the Deputy Prime Minister clearly treasures, given his reluctance in relation to this Bill—are under threat. The Government are therefore making a serious tactical mistake.
It is interesting that this approach has never properly been used before. The Deputy Prime Minister might point to the 1947 Act, and he might also point to section 50 of the Police Act 1996, which contains similar powers to impose pay and conditions. The point is that the powers contained in those two pieces of legislation have never been used to settle an industrial dispute. Of course, they were used to finalise pay and conditions in those two services when they had been agreed by negotiation, but the powers in the 1947 and 1996 Acts were never used in the situation that we face now. That is why imposition is unlikely to work. There is no precedent for it, and if the Government persist with this approach, they will prolong the strike.
The 1947 Act is clear. It transferred the fire service from being basically a nationalised service to being a civil authority-based service. When two parties had refused to agree, the 1947 Act allowed a Secretary of State to arbitrate. As for the fact that the power was not used, it was repealed by the Conservative Government in 1959.
The Deputy Prime Minister is right in what he says—I have a copy of the 1947 Act and the relevant section in front of me. My point, however, as he has just admitted, is that those powers were never used. I assume that the Deputy Prime Minister now wants to use those powers when we have a serious dispute on our hands.
The Minister of State quotes my words back to me. Yes, it is passionate reluctance, but we must make the judgment about whether the Government are taking the right way forward, and we think that the Deputy Prime Minister is wrong.
There are other problems with the Bill. For a start, paradoxically, although we debated in the House a few months ago a measure to decentralise powers in the fire service through the repeal of section 19 of the 1947 Act, the Government are now centralising powers and taking even more draconian ones. It is odd that the Government say one thing one month, and a completely different thing the next.
Having attempted to get this point across to the Conservative spokesman, I shall try again. As far as I can see, the Liberal Democrats want a vote of the FBU to make up its mind. It can have a vote on pay, but how can it have a vote on conditions—given the nature of the changes that must be introduced, they will almost certainly have to be introduced at brigade level, if not at station level? Is it not a case of negotiation being required?
It is possible to vote on the principle and the framework, although I take the hon. Gentleman's point. It was interesting that one of the most important details of the Deputy Prime Minister's speech was that the Local Government Association and the employers are now working with some of the largest brigades to see whether they can implement one of the more contentious aspects of what is supposed to be decided locally—reform of the rotas—to see whether the fears of the average firefighter can be dispelled. I welcome that announcement. It represents the right way forward because when firefighters start to see the reforms in place, many of their fears will go. It will be possible for them to vote because they will see the framework and hopefully, with the new announcement, the implications of the Bain review.
I am worried by several of the Bill's details. It does not seem to have borrowed every word in the 1947 Act. It is interesting that the Government have reworded that Act because it is much more specific about the types of imposition that the Secretary of State may make by order. The Bill will give the Secretary of State a general power, but the House should limit the Government's power, not give them huge general powers. I am worried that this or another Government could use the power in clause 1 in a way that this House would not intend or consider appropriate with regard to the dispute. For example, the power could be used to reform firefighters' pensions, which is a contentious issue, as we all know. Some readings of the Bill suggest that the power could be used to stop strikes. The power is broad and dangerous.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden that if the Bill is to be passed—I hope that it will not be—it should include a sunset clause so that its powers may be time-limited. The Bill should provide for a mechanism to return powers to local authority employers.
I have made it clear that the Government could pursue alternatives. The Bill is not the only way to break the deadlock. We have already debated the secret ballot, but independent compulsory arbitration would also represent a way forward.
Having been around the course a few times during the years in which I have been involved in trade unionism, I have heard the phrase "compulsory arbitration" on many occasions. However, even compulsory arbitration requires agreement by both parties. What would happen if compulsory arbitration were accepted but either side did not accept its outcome? What would be the hon. Gentleman's policy in such a situation?
As I agreed during my exchanges with the Deputy Prime Minister, the logic behind compulsory arbitration, the Government's policy or a no-strike policy means that there must be a mechanism through law, such as sequestration of the union's assets or the sacking of firefighters, although no one wants to contemplate or adopt either option. A free society must have a final recourse in law for such action. However, compulsory arbitration would engage the FBU and firefighters, so it would be a much better way of reaching a negotiated settlement. That is why the Deputy Prime Minister was wrong to say that the Bill would provide for a further type of arbitration. I would not say that he misled the House but he misrepresented the Bill. The problem is that the Bill will provide not for arbitration but for imposition. Compulsory arbitration would provide a much better way forward because it would engage both sides.
I know that some local authority employers worry about arbitration. They feel that when they experienced it before, the independent arbitrator or panel of arbitrators did not understand the fire service and its details. They believe that people such as Professor Burchill may come up with solutions that do not push the modernisation agenda in the way in which it must be pushed. However, I should have thought that ACAS is now quite in tune with the issues and if compulsory arbitration were held in the context of the Bain modernisation and financial regime—although not according to every dot and comma—it would provide a way forward. After all, the FBU executive has recommended a way forward on two occasions.
One could comment on many aspects of the dispute. Many issues, such as pensions, have not been addressed by the Government. I know that firefighters are worried about the implications that Bain will have for pensions. Retained firefighters should be addressed. They have done a fabulous job during the strikes, as they do every day of the year. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, it is worrying that retained firefighters' pay increases are being delayed as the dispute drags on. Has the Minister of State found a mechanism other than the Bill to determine whether retained firefighters could receive a pay increase before the dispute is settled? They deserve that and it is a real shame that they must wait for such a length of time.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was right to pay tribute to the incredible role that the armed forces play when they deputise for the firefighters. They have showed that a modernised approach to fire prevention and putting out fires can work because they used several of the ideas for reform proposed in the Bain review.
Many hon. Members want to speak, and I am especially keen to hear Labour Back Benchers because I hope that they will help to get the message over to the Government. The Liberal Democrats cannot support the Bill in the Lobby tonight. The Government might have the right strategy on modernisation and pay, but the Bill represents a wrong tactic that will backfire.
I am sorry that Mr. Speaker did not select the amendment that I signed, but I shall speak about its message. The Bill will be a disaster. People who live in a democracy cannot be forced to do something that they do not want to do. Professor Burchill offered a way out and I hope that we can return to that.
I am immensely proud to be a member of the Labour party and a lifelong trade unionist. When the Labour party and the trade union movement work together, they create a huge civilising force. I was active during the 1970s when wonderful legislation was introduced with the full co-operation of the trade union movement to bring us equal pay, health and safety at work, and other good civilising laws. I am proud of the way in which this Government have moved the agenda along and given us more rights at work.
I wanted to get that on the record, because I shall now criticise the Government heavily for introducing the Bill. It will effectively end firefighters' collective bargaining rights to allow their democratically elected leaders, for whom I have a lot of time, to negotiate their members' pay and conditions now and in the future. I am sorry that a Labour Government are proposing such an unprecedented attack on workers' rights. The Bill undoubtedly breaches many international treaties to which the Government are signatory, such as the International Labour Organisation convention. In the words of the Fire Brigades Union leader, Andy Gilchrist, it is
"illiberal, undemocratic and signifies two fingers to . . . international law".
If one thinks about Iraq, we seem to making a habit of doing that, and I deplore that fact.
The Government offer two main arguments in support of their attack on the FBU. First, they argue that firefighters endanger public safety when they take industrial action and, secondly, they claim that collective bargaining has broken down in the fire service and that they must impose a settlement in the national interest. Neither claim is true. The Government have interfered too much and the dispute could have been settled on at least two occasions. I wish that they had not taken such a line.
The Government have contradicted themselves: the FBU gave a clear commitment that its members would respond to emergencies in a professional and caring way, as we saw during the few days' strikes that were held. It also said that there would be an immediate response if there were a need to protect public safety, and we saw examples of that throughout the strikes. Indeed, the Government praised them over and again for the responsible way in which they responded during those few days of action.
That was repeated across the country, and I am grateful to the firefighters for looking after our safety.
The second argument relates to the breakdown in negotiations. The Government bear a heavy responsibility for that. The dead hand of No. 10 came down at least twice on a settlement. I wonder how many of the policy wonks in No. 10 who are thrusting this policy on us have belonged to a trade union or have negotiated on behalf of members. I suspect not many.
Many of us, including the Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr. Barron and myself, have negotiated in difficult circumstances on issues on which we thought we could never get a result that would satisfy both sides, but we managed to achieve that. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister cut his political teeth on a serious dispute as a trade union activist. He was unfairly accused of being politically motivated when all he wanted to do was to get a just and fair settlement for some of the most exploited people in the country. The seafarers had dreadful pay and conditions—I am old enough to remember all the arguments on that. That background makes the Deputy Prime Minister eminently suited to the role of getting a settlement. Unfortunately, I do not think that he is being allowed to do that by people who dislike organised labour and who have adopted all the Tory bad past practices.
On Professor Frank Burchill's proposals, like many of my colleagues, I attended an FBU briefing last night, which was useful. His proposals could settle the dispute to the satisfaction of the firefighters, their unions and employers. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he did not think that the firefighters would accept the Burchill recommendations, but that is not what I gathered when I spoke to them. I think that they would accept them and the pay claims could be settled. Of course, that would not be to everyone's satisfaction. People always end up with a compromise in such circumstances, but the alternative will seriously damage the best firefighting service in the world, which is an extremely valuable public service.
I do not like the Government's draft guidelines. They are all about cuts and the new philosophy of getting as much out of someone as possible regardless of the consequences. I cannot believe that a Labour Government have not considered the possibility that losing 5,000 firefighters will affect safety; I think that it will. At last night's briefing, we were told that if we were to compare the loss of 5,000 jobs with a proportionate cut in the number of nurses, it would be like sacking 40,000 nurses. No one would contemplate doing that. I urge the Government to think again when they say that the redundancies will be painless and harm no one. I think that they might harm the public if not enough people are available to protect them.
Firefighters are members of a much-valued public sector work force and should be given the chance to have an honourable settlement. I want the dispute to be settled, but in the interests of being brief, I shall not go over old ground—I am tempted to say I shall not throw petrol on the flames.
The dispute is unnecessary. The Government must bear some responsibility for it and I am saddened that a Labour Government are trying to impose a settlement. The Bill is about imposition, not arbitration. I have a full copy of the letter from the general secretary elect, Brendan Barber. He makes it clear that he is
"firmly convinced that there is no short cut through imposition. Real modernisation will only be delivered if the support of the fire service workers is secured through a negotiated settlement."
I think that all Labour Members believe that. He goes on to say:
"I strongly urge you again now to use all your best endeavours to promote such a settlement rather than pursuing this damaging and unhelpful statutory intervention."
I add my voice to that and plead with the Government to accept that the Burchill proposals could be the way forward.
The Bill should be dumped. As a democrat and a lifelong trade unionist, something of which I have always been proud, I intend to vote against it. I hope that my colleagues will do the same, because it marks a serious backward step in industrial relations.
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs. Mahon, who always expresses her views on such matters with great sincerity. I am sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister is not in the Chamber, because I wanted to congratulate him on a fine speech. He seemed to be enjoying himself. Perhaps he was speaking on a subject on which he has great experience, as the hon. Lady said. I agree with Mr. Davey that the right hon. Gentleman spoke passionately and that he was reluctant, as he admitted, to be here today. Indeed, I wish that none of us had to be here to discuss this matter.
There is something inherently wrong with the Bill. Intellectually, I could be persuaded that it is needed. We have heard what went on during the industrial action and no doubt will hear more about that, but something inside me says that we should not be introducing the Bill at the moment. In one way, I am relieved that the amendments were not selected because I might have found myself having to support one of them. Having received membership forms from the Campaign group as a result of previous votes in which I have participated, I was a little worried about that because I do not want to start a Conservative branch of the Campaign group.
I have got to know the firemen in my area over many years. Before I came to the House I was a retailer and my involvement with Uxbridge town centre meant that I met them many times. Shortly after being elected, I made representations, along with other hon. Members who represent the London borough of Hillingdon, to stop the Government snatching the second pump away from us. I got to know the firemen well.
I saw the firemen again during the course of the action and once took my 13-year-old son, Peter, with me. Afterwards he said, "Dad, they seem like absolutely normal men and women. They are not the militants that we are seeing on the television. They nothing but hardworking people. I don't think they want to strike." He was right. That station decided in its ballot not to strike, but we must all take collective responsibility and they did what they had to do. They also assured me that there was no question but that if public safety were at risk, they would go out.
Today's situation is deeply problematic. I regret greatly the inability of both sides to come to an agreement. All of us as Members of Parliament rather fancy ourselves as great arbiters and think that if only we were given a chance we could sort out this dispute, but many people have tried to do that and there is a great deal of intransigence. I understand the frustration. We all deal with disputes between neighbours in our constituencies. For people on the outside, those disputes are seemingly about nothing and, we think, could be sorted out over a cup of tea. However, they end in almost open warfare. That seems to be the situation with the fire dispute.
The fact that there was a build-up to action in Iraq during the course of the dispute made the situation much more difficult, and the firefighters, who had been supported by the public in many ways, started to be demonised. I have no particular regard for the leadership of the FBU, but I was slightly surprised to find that no restaurant bills have been found in the Iraqi Ministry of Information. The leadership, however, has let down the ordinary members—that is the view of members of my local branch of the FBU. As many hon. Members have said today, the holding of a secret ballot may reflect better what is going on. When we vote in the House we are accountable to our constituents, so we must have an open vote. If the way in which we voted were not a matter of public record, some votes might have gone a different way. Luckily, we do not have that system.
Yes—I understand how these things work.
I believe that we should try to ballot the members of the FBU. As I said, the dispute was overshadowed by the conflict in Iraq. I should like to pay tribute to the servicemen and women who stood by and took over firefighting duties, particularly the men and women of RAF Uxbridge, who were on duty in our area and manned the green goddesses. I felt secure in the knowledge that they were only half a mile from my house. They did an excellent job, despite worries, which they share with my constituents, about having to go into action.
I am not in a position to know what has gone on behind closed doors in the discussions, but I believe that the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and the Deputy Prime Minister have tried their best. I do not think that they particularly want to be in this position. Indeed, I got the impression from a Government Whip just before the first strike that they thought that the situation would be resolved: there would be a short 24-hour strike, the firefighters would have their moment, then it would all be sorted out and everything would be hunky-dory. Something seemed to go badly wrong, but I do not know what it was.
"specific or general directions to fire authorities about the use or disposal of property or facilities."
I am concerned about the inclusion of disposal of property in a Bill that tries to set or modify conditions of service. If we are not careful, under the Bill, one of the two remaining fire stations in the London borough of Hillingdon could be closed down. As I said earlier, the first time that I became involved with the fire services was to try to stop a pump being removed from a station, which has happened in many constituencies. The Bill will make such a process a little easier, and I have a great deal of concern about that.
There are increased risks today, as was highlighted by hon. Members who spoke about suicide bombers. I discovered that the suicide bomber who recently blew himself up in Israel worked in Stockley park, which is divided between my constituency and that of John McDonnell. That young man was on the books of a company next door to his family's shop in Uxbridge. With all the potential terrorism in our area, we are very much aware of increased risks. This is not the time to look at reducing the fire services; it is a time to consolidate and, if necessary, increase them. I shall not go into the details of what firemen have told me, but they feel that being called out to road traffic incidents is an increasing part of their duties, the money for which comes out of their budget.
A couple of things concerned me in the explanatory notes, which say of the regulatory impact assessment:
"It is not expected that the Bill will have any direct effect on businesses, charities or the voluntary sector."
That may not be expected, but if property is disposed of and the service is reduced, there will be an impact on those bodies. Many Government Members may think that, as a Conservative, I am anti-union, but I am far from being an anti-union person. I have one reason for holding a slight grudge against the trade union movement. On the day on which I was supposed to receive my degree many years ago, the TUC called a day of action. My parents could not see the ceremony because it was cancelled, so I never officially got my degree, which is probably why I ended up in the House instead of getting a proper job.
Inevitably, the Bill has been introduced as a result of what has gone on. It has many flaws and, like my right hon. Friend David Davis, I hope that it can be improved in Committee. I sincerely hope that there is still time to solve the dispute. Everyone involved should treat themselves to a good helping of humble pie, try to forget the history of the past few months and see if they can sort this one out. If they can, and the Government and the House can scrap this rather unpleasant Bill, they will be doing the country a service.
It is rather peculiar for me to stand up to speak in this debate, as waiting for rebellions is a bit like waiting for London buses; one can wait for ever and then two come along at once. I am afraid that, again, I shall not be able to support the Government on this Bill. I take that position not out of disrespect for the Deputy Prime Minister, who has done his best to try to intervene in the dispute constructively and find a resolution, but because I do not think that the Bill is the right way of proceeding.
Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was the Fire Brigades Union solicitor for the 17 years up to 1995. During that period, I got to know the fire service and firefighters very well—when I started, they were called firemen, but that changed—as well as the union and management. I also got to know fire service law inside out. Like every other speaker, I have nothing but respect for firefighters, who do a very dangerous job with such great courage and heroism. It was suggested from the Opposition Benches that there were no strikes in the fire service when the Conservatives were running the show, but that is not true. There were a lot of disputes, often at a local level, that did not necessarily get national publicity. Many of those disputes seemed to have been provoked by the management.
I do not dispute the need for reform of the Fire Services Act 1947, and I look forward to seeing the White Paper about that issue in due course, as I have campaigned and argued for such reform for a long time. Reform of the 1947 Act is needed from section 1 onwards. As has been mentioned, the Act does not even require the fire service to operate any form of rescue operation in relation to road accidents and, by extension, chemical incidents and terrorism. All those hazards were never even thought of, or were at least pretty minor issues, when the fire service duties were originally proposed in 1947. Nevertheless, reform of the 1947 Act has to be done comprehensively and not in the piecemeal way proposed in the Bill and in the previous amendment to local government legislation repealing section 19. We will end up with a dog's breakfast of reform that will not do anything to help in settling the dispute. Indeed, I believe that the Bill will make things worse and make a resolution less likely and modernisation harder to achieve.
The Bill gives the Secretary of State power to impose a settlement on pay and conditions, but that will not solve the problem or prevent the union from taking industrial action unless trade union law is reformed, the definition of trade disputes is changed or the right to strike is taken away from the Fire Brigades Union. Unless that happens, the union will still be able to conduct a legitimate and legal trade dispute in respect of pay. Even if the Deputy Prime Minister uses the Bill to say "You're not getting any more," it will still be able to strike.
Even if I am wrong about that, local disputes can result from a whole series of consequences, some of which we heard about earlier. Disputes could arise in respect of all sorts of terms of conditions. For example, they could relate to shift patterns. Some of the more enlightened chief fire officers might not try to interfere with shift patterns, but others—the Captain Blighs to whom the Deputy Prime Minister referred—would do so. The removal of section 19 means that there is no way in which the Deputy Prime Minister can intervene to stop them doing so, as they have no obligation to refer such decisions anywhere other than to their fire authorities. In the past, fire authorities have often been seen as rubber-stamping ciphers that merely approve what their chief officers want to do.
I agree absolutely with everything that my hon. Friend said. Does he agree that, even if the Bill seems the immediate answer to a particular situation, if there is a sense of grievance and injustice among firefighters and it is rammed through, as may well happen, with a huge Government majority, that will do nothing for long-term industrial relations with those very hard-working decent men and women, whom we all want to defend and help us when there are problems in our areas?
I very much agree, and I shall say some more about that shortly.
Disputes can still arise in respect of issues that have nothing to do with pay, such as work load. I remember advising the NASUWT in the days of the Conservative Administration in connection with the Wandsworth strike. Those involved wanted to take on various aspects of Government policy and could legitimately do so in respect of an increase in work load following policy changes. The same thing could happen in the current dispute. There could even be a dispute about the very arrangements for sorting out the issues, as a legitimate trade dispute can be conducted in relation to industrial relations mechanisms. The Bill is not a recipe for industrial peace in the fire service; as my hon. Friend Kate Hoey said, it could be a recipe for continual guerrilla warfare.
I have some concerns about particular parts of the Bill. For example, clause 1(1)(b) deals with the ability of the Deputy Prime Minister to require a fire authority to dispose of its equipment in accordance with his directions. I presume that that could be a way of organising strike breaking. We should be worried about that risk. I am pleased that a door is still open through the negotiation body and that that very important option is available. I am also pleased that the Secretary of State is empowered to consult more widely. What I would like to know is whether the consultation will also include consultation with local communities about what they would like to see done in relation to the fire service in their area under clause 1(4).
I am sure that the Minister will tell the hon. Gentleman that local communities will be consulted, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is that the integrated risk management plan is supposed to be based on an objective assessment of risk, whereas the Deputy Prime Minister has said that any settlement must be financed out of the savings from modernisation, thus defining the result of the supposedly objective process before it has even begun?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We shall have to look at the individual risk assessments in due course. The Conservative Member of the Greater London Authority for my area has written about the issue in the local newspapers. He advocates that we should change the fire service arrangements in London and that we need fewer firefighters on duty at night. That is all in accordance with the grand plan that he advocates.
I answer that very simply. I was one of the lawyers who represented the fire service victims of the King's Cross fire—the family of the firefighter who was killed and others who were injured. The fire started at the beginning of the changeover to the night shift. The night shift was called to deal with the fire. We then had more fire engines than we have now, but on that night every fire engine in the London fire brigade was called to the fire itself or used to provide relief during the night or to provide cover for those appliances that had been called to the fire. Do we want to take the risk of reducing fire cover at night and not being able to respond to such an incident? To put that question in the context of terrorism, can the Government guarantee that if a suicide bomber decides to have a go at a club in the west end he will do it only when there is no one there during the day? Is he not more likely to do it at night, in which case we may face a similar huge demand on the fire service at night—when the Conservative GLA Member in my area thinks that the risk is far less?
The dispute is not just about pay; it is about modernisation. This point echoes the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall made. Modernisation is a gradual process, taking perhaps two or three years. One can fix pay as of a given date, but the modernisation process has to expand and be introduced over a period. As has been mentioned, modernisation is already under way. Many local brigades have modernised. In my own patch, a lot of work has been done on community fire safety. The firefighters have gone out busily fixing smoke alarms to virtually anyone's house who wanted them. I am afraid that all that work has stopped. A lot of it was done as good will, often in firefighters' own time.
The fire service relies on good will. One thing that has happened in London—it was not formally organised by the trade union—is that firefighters have ceased to take up temporary promotions. They say, "Why should I bother to be promoted to temporary sub-officer to allow a fire engine to stand ready?" Firefighters' good will has been rejected, and that has caused a reduction in fire cover in London.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. You can lead a firefighter to water, but you can't necessarily make him squirt it in exactly the way and at the time that you want him to. How can we achieve modernisation by diktat? It will not work. It has been tried and has failed in the past. We ask firefighters to do a dangerous job. There are often good reasons for some of the union's policies—to avoid accidents and to maintain health and safety. In my time representing firefighters injured on duty, I have seen far too many accidents caused by managers, senior officers or often junior officers cutting corners and trying to fight a fire in unsafe ways with inadequate resources, thinking that they could do the job better than by following the correct procedures. There are good reasons for many of those policies, and I should hate firefighters to be injured as a result of changing working practices.
To achieve modernisation, we have to have the union's full co-operation, and it has to believe in what is trying to be achieved. If it takes a little longer to achieve it, so be it. The union has shown that it is willing to negotiate and modernise, as we know from the alternative proposals that have been made throughout the period. The solution to the dispute is not to impose a pay formula but to continue to negotiate until we can find a fair and honourable agreement for all the parties.
At first glance, the Bill seems innocuous because it is so brief. However, its brief provisions are far-reaching, including as they do, in clause 1(1)(a), the changing of conditions of service of firefighters and, in clause 1(1)(b), the use or disposal by fire authorities of property or facilities. That means that fire stations and appliances could be sold and that conditions of service, interpreted in clause 2(2) as
"pay and allowances, hours of duty or leave"— a fairly comprehensive list—could be changed in an unspecified way. It is unsurprising that the membership of the Fire Brigades Union is opposed to it.
The difficulty with clause 1(1)(a) is that the changes are unspecified. Firefighters do not know what they are being asked to agree to, which is generating feelings of uncertainty. For shift workers, the logistics of family life are complex, especially when both parents work. Delicately-balanced arrangements have to be made around child care, school runs and shifts, and they rely heavily on established routines. If shift patterns or work locations were to be varied at short notice, it would make life unmanageable for fire service families. Firefighters are very worried about the way in which clause 1(1)(a) might be interpreted. I was pleased to hear the Deputy Prime Minister's reassurances on that point, but there is a lot more work to be done in conveying the message to firefighters.
Firefighters to whom I have spoken recently are even more worried about disruptive changes to their working patterns than they are about pay, important though that is. Nobody joins the fire service because they want to earn a lot of money: they join because they want to provide a worthwhile public service. If they wanted to earn a lot of money, they would choose an entirely different career. In London, where they have specific problems, London weighting is only £3,000 a year, which compares unfavourably with other essential services such as teaching and the police. Housing costs are high compared with other parts of the country, and firefighters in London have difficulty in maintaining a decent standard of living. There is a case, therefore, for the upgrading of London weighting to form part of future pay negotiations.
Is the hon. Lady aware that as part of the settlement on the table the Fire Brigades Union in London is being offered an increase in the London allowance of more than 20 per cent.?
My informal discussions with firefighters suggest that they are looking for significantly more than 20 per cent., but it should indeed be included in their pay negotiations.
I want to move on to the risk review, which is not mentioned specifically in the Bill, but is inextricably linked because of its timing. Fire authorities have been asked to undertake risk reviews of their areas to be completed by September this year. They will focus on the protection of people, rather than property, as has been the case in the past. That is eminently sensible. However, the movement of large numbers of people—commuters, for example—could result in different levels of fire cover being set during the day and during the night in the same area, with a consequent effect on firefighters' working patterns. If they are asked to attend different fire stations, for example, on day and night shifts, that will cause operational as well as domestic complications. Would their clothing and equipment have to be transferred from one station to another? Would that be done during their shift or as overtime? What of the very close-knit watches who work together and rely on one another in life-endangering situations? Leading firefighters know the specific strengths and skills of every member of their watch and deploy each one accordingly. When working with a random group, thrown together in an emergency, a leading hand would not have the benefit of familiarity with firefighters under his command, and that could adversely affect the efficient and safe working of the watch.
Although the risk reviews have not yet been completed, clause 1(1)(a) leaves the door open to whatever proposals arise from them. An impression is given of responding to local circumstances, but the budget remains centrally controlled. It would be disingenuous to suppose that the outcome or even the aim of the risk reviews is not to make savings, given the budgetary pressures on fire authorities. The London fire brigade in particular has had to prepare for terrorist incidents such as major building collapse and chemical or biological attacks. The Greater London Authority budget had to allocate £11 million to fund that. In the absence of a Treasury decision, the money had to come from the fire service precept.
Fire authorities must make difficult decisions on finding savings in the risk reviews. Closing fire stations on valuable sites would raise large sums of money but would be deeply unpopular with the general public and firefighters. Grave anxieties would be expressed about response times, especially if closures meant longer journeys or reduced cover at night. Any firefighter will say that although there are fewer fires at night, the proportion of fatalities is higher than in the daytime. People do not walk around at night and fires are not noticed so quickly. In residential properties, where families are asleep, the vital life-saving period is between the moment the householder makes an alarm call and the arrival of the fire service. If it was, for example, 20 minutes, as the Deputy Prime Minister admitted in his opening remarks, anyone who was still in a smoke-filled bedroom would be dead.
The Deputy Prime Minister's powers to close fire stations, impose pay settlements and change conditions are draconian and centralising, yet fall short of the most necessary provision of a strike ban for a specified, post-war period. Of course, the need to draw on armed services personnel to undertake firefighting duties during strikes had more serious implications than usual when the country was at war. In the post-war period, our overstretched armed services need time to recoup and recover. It is as important now as it was during the war that they are not called on for firefighting duties.
The fire service enjoys huge public support. We have had five campaigns to save our second fire appliance at our local fire station in Hornchurch. On the fifth occasion, the battle was lost, but public support was as strong on the fifth as on the first occasion. There is a deep well of good will, which is far from exhausted, among fire service personnel. They believe in the importance of their work. I never doubted that, but my awareness of what they do increased when I set fire to my greenhouse in the Easter recess because I had an out-of-control, large bonfire. I did not call the fire service—I put it out myself—but the heat from my small fire and the time it took me to extinguish it gave me a new perspective on what firefighters have to face in their ordinary, everyday duties.
Firefighters' fears about station closures and job losses need to be communicated clearly and tackled frankly. As I said to the Deputy Prime Minister on a previous occasion, 1974 was a year of high recruitment. Firefighters who joined then are now close to retirement, and there are genuine concerns that that will be perceived as an opportunity for major natural wastage. I believe that changes to enhance the service would be welcomed, but the firefighters are being asked to accept an open-ended agreement. The Bill is too vague; they are being asked to sign a blank cheque. In that respect, the measure is too short. It is deficient in that it does not include a no-strike provision, with an appropriate sunset clause, for the period of respite and training programmes for the Army. A permanent no-strike agreement, in line with those in place for the police and the Army, would be a desirable aim in this essential life-saving service, and should be worked towards as part of a negotiated package on pay and conditions.
The Bill is seriously defective. Its sweeping provisions will do nothing to improve relations with the FBU and will need a great deal of improvement in Committee—including the introduction of provisions for a secret postal ballot to enable the views of ordinary firefighters to be made known—before it can become acceptable.
The key question that we need to address today is whether the Bill will contribute to the settlement of the dispute. That is fairly straightforward. To do that, we have to understand the strength of feeling among firefighters across the country. Because of the nature of the dispute and the concerns that I have with regard to my own fire service and fire station—I echo the concerns expressed by Mr. Randall, who has been on the same campaigns as I have locally—I have built up a relationship over time with local firefighters. I pay tribute to them and personally thank them for all that they have done over the years to serve my community. Because of my involvement in various campaigns over the years, I think that I have been on more picket lines and visited more fire stations than most other Members in the House today.
The depth of anger about the Bill, and about its presentation at this particular time, is palpable, and we must take that into account when we discuss these issues today. Many FBU members and firefighters across the country see this as a strike-breaking Bill—an attempt to break their strike. To attempt to break the strike, one would need to defeat the union, and many of them see this as a direct attack on their union. But the Bill goes further than that. It gives the Deputy Prime Minister powers to impose conditions of work on firefighters and to force through a programme of cuts in firefighters' jobs, fire stations and fire tenders. All of that is set out in the Bain review. Most firefighters across the country see the Bill as an attempt to break their strike, to break their union and to cut their jobs. We need to appreciate that as we debate these issues.
The Bill also sends out a clear message to other public sector workers. This point has been made by many of the speakers today who have any form of trade union involvement or history. The message that is going out to teachers, nurses and local government workers is that, if they enter into a dispute with this Government over wages and conditions, the Government will resort to the use of Parliament to impose a settlement. We cannot avoid that conclusion. It was reinforced in the Prime Minister's birthday message to the nation published in the Financial Times, in which he made it clear that any trade union standing in the way of what he sees as reform would be taken on. Many in the public sector have already experienced reform, and it has meant privatisation, increased hours and worsening conditions, despite the investment that has gone in.
We need to understand how we got into this mess—because it is a mess, by anybody's judgment. The history of the dispute has been rewritten every time a Minister has risen, and I can understand where the anger comes from, because we could have resolved this matter 12 months ago. In step one of the dispute, the negotiators on the employers' side prepared an offer 12 months ago. It was a claim based on going at least some way towards what the union was demanding. In other words, it followed the normal negotiating process, whereby the union makes a demand and the employer comes back, usually at about the mid point. That is where we were in June last year, but an intervention occurred—denied by the Government, but at that point admitted by some employer negotiators. That offer was blocked.
That was the first disastrous Government intervention, and I do not name names. It soured the atmosphere of the negotiations immediately. The employers lost all control of the agenda and the unions were not sure who they were negotiating with. So when the ballot on the offer occurred, what was the response? In Northern Ireland, 97 per cent. voted to reject it. On average, 90 per cent. of trade unionists—FBU members—voted against the offer. That is the highest ballot result opposing and rejecting an offer in the history of trade unionism since the second world war.
Step two was industrial action, which was solid to a person among FBU members across the country. It was responsible action, as firefighters made it clear that if lives were at risk they would leave the picket lines. I thank them for that, and we pay tribute to them for it. As my hon. Friend Ms Walley pointed out, that situation occurred on five occasions in her constituency, and on five occasions they responded. What was the Government's response? The Bain review.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Barron referred to Wilberforce. I worked for the National Union of Mineworkers for a time, and I was a member of the National Union of Mineworkers-Colliery Officials and Staff Association, so I know that Wilberforce was a joint initiative from unions and employers, which, with the Government, agreed who sat on the review body and its terms of reference. Eventually, results came from that. Bain, however, was imposed. There was no consultation on membership or on terms of reference. As a result, there was no agreement on the outcome.
Then, in November, a clear deal was drafted. Virtually every Member of the House saw the draft after publication. It was acceptable to employers and the unions, with the TUC present. Many of us were up during that night, and we breathed a sigh of relief at 3.30 because we thought it was all over. Then came the second disastrous Government intervention. I do not care whether the Deputy Prime Minister was in or out of bed. We know that civil servants were present throughout the night. The employers confirmed the next morning that the offer was costed, but the Government intervened again to prevent agreement.
I believe that we could have had a settlement in November to solve the dilemma and get us all off this terrible hook. The result of such inept and dangerous interventions is the worst industrial relations atmosphere in the fire service for 25 years. Across the trade union movement, there is widespread disquiet at a Labour Government's behaviour, which was never expected and never planned for.
What happened then? The FBU took further industrial action, which, again, was responsible. We were told in the House before that action that there was no agreement on the gold cover—the standard of emergency cover. There was. We were told that there was no agreement on actions to be taken should a terrorist incident occur. There was. The FBU gave those assurances to the Deputy Prime Minister personally.
Then the Prime Minister intervened and associated the strike action with the election of Andy Gilchrist as general secretary. Most of us have been shop stewards, so we know that a union general secretary cannot persuade 97 per cent. of members to go on strike if they do not want to. The FBU behaved appropriately throughout.
The third stage was the Government directing the employers, straightforwardly, not to allow the November offer to go forward. There was a discussion in which we reached the next stage earlier this year. By that time the offer had been amended and there was potential for a negotiated settlement; but the atmosphere had been soured by Government interventions—by the emphasis on Bain and cuts, and by the argument that the FBU never wanted to negotiate on modernisation, when we knew that for three years it had been discussing with the Government a draft White Paper dealing solely with that issue. No trade union leader could sell his members a deal in such an atmosphere. The Government have cut the legs from under the FBU general secretary.
The Government's interventions destroyed trust, good will and any belief in the honesty of the discussions and negotiations that were taking place. I urge Members to take account of the depth of firefighters' anger about their treatment, and the way in which they understand this process.
We now reach the fourth stage of the process. Mr. Burchill comes forward. He is no running dog of Trotskyism, no lapdog of the militant trade union movement; he is the independent chair of the joint council. He has proposals that the FBU leadership see as a basis for negotiation and for a settlement—for that is what the leadership thought at that stage. What do the Government do? The employers say "We cannot accept this," but the FBU wants to negotiate. The Government say "No, we will not fund it," and they invent a figure of £100 million. There has been no negotiation with any fire authorities about the cost of Burchill. How do we know that? We know because the fire authorities have been asked, and they say that they have not been involved in the calculations. So a figure is invented that undermines a climate in which Burchill could have been agreed.
The current consultations in the fire stations may well cause some FBU members to go back to their executive next week and say that Burchill does not look like the basis for a deal; but there is time for the creation of a climate in which we can persuade people that it could form the basis for a negotiated settlement.
What happens then? The next intervention. What perfect timing! We present this Bill, as a threat to impose a settlement—for that is what it is. The timing, in fact, could not have been worse, undercutting FBU leaders' ability and authority to try to secure a negotiated settlement and alienating the entire trade union movement.
The point of the current consultation is to reach a stage at which Burchill could be presented as a formal offer, on the basis of which a ballot could take place. That is the normal process of negotiation: union leaders discuss with their members what a proposal means, going through it line by line. That point was made by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew. It is difficult to organise a ballot on a complex negotiation: the leadership needs time to discuss it with members, and when it constitutes a formal offer it is subjected to a ballot.
We had reached a point at which a climate was being created for resolution of the dispute. Then the Government produced this Bill, saying that whatever happened in coming weeks they would drive it through. It is no good Ministers coming here and saying, "We're only doing this because if we don't, there will be more draconian measures in the wings, coming from No. 10 or elsewhere." Ministers who have some experience of industrial relations should be standing up to No. 10 and saying that this is no way to resolve the dispute.
Time has moved on, and at this point there would, I think, be an overwhelming rejection. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, we can only provide advice according to our individual judgments; that is the best way forward. The atmosphere is so soured that unless the offer is realistic and based on the process that Burchill has gone through, it stands no chance of success—it is as simple as that. We have been led into a quagmire. Rancour has broken out in this dispute because of a series of inept and—I repeat—dangerous interventions.
The FBU executive meets next week. I hope that we can find a way forward, but if the Government think that this legislation can be used as a threat, they need to reassess the people with whom they are dealing. As has been said time and again, firefighters are some of the most courageous members of our community; they put their lives at risk for us every day. They are disciplined, with many coming from a military background. They do not go on strike lightly, and they will not be intimidated easily. They are seriously dedicated people, yet today I heard them be traduced.
I have toured fire stations that are trying to operate the new dimension procedures to tackle ricin and biological warfare. They have been demanding the necessary equipment for nearly 18 months. Some of the equipment that they have been training with during the past six months has been of an appallingly bad standard. We are told today that there are boycotts, but I did not experience a single one in any of the areas that I visited—far from it. Firefighters are willing, yet again, to risk their lives on our behalf. Trying to push through the legislation with threats such as this is totally counter-productive; if anything, it will exacerbate the situation. It will make a settlement more difficult to achieve, not less.
For the Government, this has much wider ramifications. Such coercion of public service workers results in demoralisation. Coercion of one group of trade unions makes others militant and angry, because they know that they could be next. From the Labour point of view, it destroys any semblance of the link between new Labour policies and the tradition of a party and a movement that was founded by the trade union movement, which many trade unionists have devoted their lives to supporting.
This new Labour legislation marks an historic break between the party of Hardie, Attlee and John Smith, and new Labour. If it is passed, do not mention solidarity again; do not refer to "our movement"; do not expect the support of firefighters across the country and the many trade unionists who are behind them—and be prepared to go further. Many firefighters will not accept an imposed settlement. What happens then? It was made clear in today's House of Commons briefing that this legislation does contain the power to go further and ban industrial action. So in voting for this legislation, be prepared to go further; be prepared for the consequences: banning strikes and sequestering union funds, taking us back to the Shrewsbury picket days of the imprisonment of trade unionists.
This legislation is a disaster—I never expected a Labour Government to introduce such legislation. It is a disgrace to our movement, and it should be rejected tonight.
The principal argument advanced by the Deputy Prime Minister in introducing the Bill was about public safety. He made it clear that, in view of the special delegate conference's rejection of the latest offer and the reduction from 19,000 to 9,000 in the number of troops available to provide cover in the event of continuing strikes, which would have a significant effect on response times, the consequences for public safety could not be tolerated, so he had to impose a settlement. However, I believe that the Bill will not deliver the public safety that the Deputy Prime Minister rightly desires.
As John McDonnell so eloquently pointed out, an imposed settlement will not necessarily be accepted. The Bill has no evident power—unless clause 1(1)(a) contains sinister hidden powers—to ensure that firemen remain at work, thereby safeguarding public safety. The Bill simply does not possess the teeth required to deliver its principal aim of obliging firemen to go back to work.
When the Deputy Prime Minister was challenged when he made his statements to the House at the end of last year and earlier this year, particularly on public safety and whether he would use existing powers to prevent strike action, he consistently said that that was a matter for the Attorney-General and the courts—he had no power. I suggest that the Bill provides an opportunity for him to acquire the necessary power and I hope that the Committee will concentrate on giving him such power, should he so require it. However, giving him the power to impose a settlement raises the question of what exactly he intends to impose. In view of the huge powers that the Bill will accord him to determine terms and conditions and remuneration, he could at least have shared with us—or given us some idea of—what he had in mind in that respect. He has not done so. Will he seek to impose the terms and conditions and the settlement that have just been rejected by the special delegate conference? If not, what terms and conditions will he impose that will provide any chance of bringing about the settlement that he desires?
Will the Minister for Local Government and the Regions explain precisely what is meant by clause 1(5)(a), when it says
"to make provision with retrospective effect fixing or modifying the pay or allowances of fire brigade members (including provision having effect from a time before the passing of this Act)"?
I am not aware of any precedent for such a power, but I would welcome some clarification of what that means.
I thought that I heard the Deputy Prime Minister clearly indicating, by way of threat, that he could not give an assurance that an imposed settlement would be as generous as the one already offered. Did my hon. Friend not hear that? If he is in any doubt, he could ask the Minister to clarify the matter.
I certainly heard that, but I was hoping for some exposition of precisely what the Deputy Prime Minister intended to impose. I hope that, if the Minister will not intervene now, he will favour us with an explanation in his winding-up speech. The fundamental question remains: if the Deputy Prime Minister intends to impose a settlement, why did it not occur to him to seek to negotiate one earlier? There has been a great deal of confusion about the level of negotiation that directly involved the Deputy Prime Minister. We have heard from the hon. Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the extent of the Deputy Prime Minister's involvement, and they described how unhelpful it was. Indeed, when he was at his most passionate and eloquent this afternoon, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was at the heart of the negotiations. I hope that the record will show tomorrow that that was what he said. I am not sure what the Deputy Prime Minister meant by those words but it is clear that he was exercising a veto throughout the negotiations.
My hon. Friend Mr. Randall pointed out that the Deputy Prime Minister's speech was one of the best that he had made, and I agree. He was eloquent and passionate—most of all when he described his frustration at what he called the misconceptions, uncertainties and lack of dialogue. So why did he not do what the Opposition were urging all along and take a direct, formal part in the negotiations, thereby ensuring that there were no misconceptions or lack of communication?
The Deputy Prime Minister was eloquent when he criticised the employers' communication skills. The negotiations would have benefited from the communication skills that he evidenced this afternoon, when he presented the Bill to the House. The Government should have intervened in the matter when the negotiations were under way, as I pointed out in an intervention. The Deputy Prime Minister did not answer me, saying simply that that was a matter of opinion. We would not be in this position now if there had been direct negotiations, as we argued all along.
One way to get out of the position in which we now find ourselves, short of an attempt to impose a settlement, would be to do what my right hon. Friend David Davis proposed, and hold a ballot. In that way, we could at least test the water.
Mr. Drew responded to the proposal for a ballot with the extraordinary argument that no one could be expected to respond in a ballot to a programme of actions or conditions imposed from the centre, when that programme would have a differential effect in different parts of the kingdom. That seems a pretty good argument against ever holding a general election, but I shall let that ride. In Committee, the Opposition would do well to concentrate on the possibility of inserting into the Bill arrangements for a secret ballot of the entire FBU membership.
I shall finish with some questions that I hope the Minister of State will address when he winds up the debate. When will the White Paper on which much of the Bill is predicated be published? In respect of what is being proposed for the future of the fire services, will he say whether there is any substance to the reports on the front page of today's edition of The Daily Telegraph to the effect that the Deputy Prime Minister is urging local authorities to ensure that they charge when the fire service is called out to deal with domestic floods, car crashes, and so on?
What guidelines have been issued for the purposes of drawing up the risk assessments, management plans and consultations that will be instituted once section 19 of the 1947 Act is repealed? I believe that those assessments are being made even now, so I should be grateful to know what guidelines the Government have issued.
In his statement to the House on
When the Deputy Prime Minister was asked again and again why he had not made the assets and facilities available, he advanced two arguments. The first was that they were not necessary and that the servicemen were not capable of using them. The second, and more important, was that that would only inflame the situation. Perhaps he can explain why these provisions are in the Bill. If they were so unnecessary and unhelpful then, what has changed?
Principally, the Bill simply does not and will not do what the Government hope it will. If it is to do that, it will require substantial amendment in Committee.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate. It is peculiar that every Labour Back Bencher who speaks is likely to speak against the Bill. I should like to respond briefly to Mr. Swayne so that there is no misunderstanding about how we could handle a ballot. We can have a ballot on pay and on the outline framework of conditions. But given that the Government want to impose a series of solutions at brigade level and at the level of individual stations, unless we allow a ballot to take place at those levels, we cannot get a meaningful result. We must agree to disagree on that.
Members have paid tribute to the earnestness with which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has approached the matter but, with the best will in the world, I cannot understand how we can see the Bill as anything other than counter-productive, and it could be very disadvantageous. My part of the world is not known for its militancy but, like my hon. Friend John McDonnell, I have spoken not only to the FBU, but to retained firefighters. They feel angry; partly because of the time taken without reaching a settlement, but also at what has been, at best, a series of misunderstandings and, at worst, recklessness.
I do not see why we cannot look at what Sir Frank Burchill suggested. All the evidence shows that he is an independent person who speaks for no one other than himself and his proposals contained the basis of a settlement. No one has yet costed them. No one pretends that they are an end, but they are the means to an end. But why cannot we have a costing of the repercussions if Burchill were the basis of a settlement?
I have been critical of the FBU in one respect. It would have made sense for the union to take part in the Bain investigation, although, with the benefit of hindsight, it may justify its position because of its feeling that Bain was an imposition. Perhaps we should reconsider the repercussions of what Bain brought forward, but, as with any settlement, there are points in Bain that will, in due course, be agreed.
My biggest concern remains the fact that we have moved beyond pay. Pay alone was a difficult issue to resolve, but most people who have any understanding of the fire service, including the Deputy Prime Minister, suggested that, because of the lack of appropriate reward in recent times, we had to recognise that the fire service was a deserving case. We have gone well beyond that now, and into the difficult arena of whether there will be job losses, how firefighters will be asked to work and how some things of which the service is proud will have to alter.
There is a trap—the Deputy Prime Minister fell into it—to do with the nature of why there has not been willingness among firefighters to change their pattern of work, and that has to do with the fact that they supposedly all have wonderful second jobs. One of the best ways to make anyone in any place of work angry is to repeat old wives' tales about what may have been true in previous generations but is not the case now. The firefighters I talk to do not have second jobs. They recognise the advantages of their shift pattern and the way in which it allows them to use their time in ways that other people cannot, but, in the main, they do not have second jobs, and I wish that we could move on from the belief that the dispute is all about an overtime ban because of interference with second jobs.
Like my hon. Friend, I have visited FBU members in my constituency, and he is right that only a minority hold second jobs. However, those who have second jobs do so because they cannot afford to live on the income that the first job provides. It stands logic on its head to suggest that anything else is true.
That is a fair point, and it is why we need to get away from disconnecting pay and conditions. They are linked, and the insults often thrown at the profession are unfair.
I do not want to exaggerate the point, but my main reason for being upset with the Bill, notwithstanding the fact that I do not think it will allow any opportunity for a settlement, is that it creates a precedent, as other hon. Members have said. That precedent has already been noted on the Opposition Front Bench. The Opposition cannot wait to look at the opportunities that it will provide in Committee and elsewhere. It opens the door to no-strike arrangements, and more, for those who work in the public sector. In a democracy, that is totally reprehensible, and as a socialist, I find it completely unacceptable. We should not be creating that precedent.
To ensure that the hon. Gentleman does not inadvertently misrepresent my right hon. Friend David Davis, let me say that there is no wider agenda on public services in general. This is a specific issue to do with an emergency service that is rightly regarded as absolutely essential and on a par with the military and the police in its importance to the community.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we can judge each event only on its merits. The problem is that as soon a decision is made that may appear appropriate in a particular case, it becomes easier to argue a much harder line for the future. I would go even further. We could be looking at a whole series of industrial relations changes, which may not come about through primary legislation as such, but could lead to a breakdown in relations.
With the best will in the world, the fire service, like many of our public services, can only operate at local level. What saddens me is the danger of this precedent. I have a lot of evidence that the relationships have not been dangerously put at risk locally, but I fear that, if we get this wrong—the Bill is evidence that we could get it wrong—those local relationships could begin to suffer, and we could ratchet up the possibility that such impositions have to be made in relation not just to no-strike arrangements, but to the operation of firefighters' shifts. There may be some dangers given the way in which those who work with the fire service are asked to work, and we are in danger of opening a can of worms.
As someone who has spent his life as a trade unionist, I believe that it is always worth going the extra mile to try to find a settlement. There is no doubt that this dispute has lasted too long, but there seem to be signs of a settlement. There are certainly those on both sides who would say that a settlement is not that far away, yet just as we seem to be edging towards it, we are resorting to the possibility of creating a complete impasse. I fear that a lot of anger will result, and we must avoid this precedent in every case.
I begin with a couple of tributes. I want to join colleagues who have paid tribute to members of the fire services in the different areas that we represent. I am particularly grateful to them for the patience that they have shown me during different stages of the dispute, not only in educating me about the risks that they face and are willing to take in the course of their everyday duties as firefighters, but in taking me through the modernisation agenda that they themselves have been a part of. They felt that they were partners with the Government in that agenda right up until 2001, when the draft White Paper prepared by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. O'Brien, appeared to be the document that would have modernised the fire service and produced not only a restructuring, but a consequent pay settlement that would never have taken us into this dispute.
It seems somewhat perverse that we have gone through a process whereby we have plucked a settlement from the jaws of a national agreement and plunged it into the grip of a national dispute. That is a perverse political achievement for anyone to wish to lay claim to, but I am grateful to the firefighters for making it clear to me what the press often fails to make clear: that the firefighters have never opposed modernisation that would stand on the basis of addressing risk to the public and putting that at the centre of any change that takes place. The House would do well to return to that as its own benchmark for acceptable change dressed up in the name of modernisation.
I also want to pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister. It is important to put on record that his whole life, certainly in the Labour party, has been devoted to campaigning for workers' rights and to challenging and tackling the exploitation that irresponsible employers have been able to get away with for decades—in fact, centuries. It is very sad that the Deputy Prime Minister has been a victim of what I regard as the Baghdad bounce from No. 10. Sadly, the Bill pursues a series of mistakes into a comedy of errors.
The Bill will solve nothing. It will give the Secretary of State powers to impose a settlement. It will give him powers to impose changes in conditions, which is a euphemism for the cuts that will be needed to pay for the settlement. It will not be acceptable to FBU members and it will almost certainly precipitate a strike. As various Members have said in the debate, we are far from clear about what the Government's reaction will be to a piece of legislation that makes industrial action more likely rather than less. We could see the glee on the faces of Opposition Front-Bench Members when they knew that that would take us one step further towards what they would dearly like to see: a Government who stepped into public sector disputes and removed the right to strike. It would be a tragedy of enormous proportions if a Labour Government were responsible for taking us right to the edge of a trap into which we would then be forced to step, and which would be celebrated only by the Conservatives, who have always wanted to see the removal of the right to strike in the public sector.
I am opposed in principle to any Government intervention that seeks to remove or undermine the right of workers to be involved in collective bargaining. As other Members have pointed out, that breaches article 8 of International Labour Organisation convention 157 and article 6 of the European social charter. As I said, it takes us perilously close to a precedent that other Governments would use to undermine systematically the right of public sector trade unions to pursue collective negotiation towards negotiated rather than imposed settlements.
We are told that this approach is inevitable because of the breakdown in negotiations. It is difficult, however, to see how that claim is substantiated. The breakdowns have occurred because of external interference. The FBU offered voluntary arbitration, but, as I understand it, that was rejected if it went outside the terms of any financial settlement that was acceptable to No. 10. We are now told that the Burchill proposals—which, again, in the terms of the FBU, may form the basis of a settlement to which it could agree—are not acceptable because they too would involve costs of £100 million over three years. As other Members have pointed out, how that figure has been reached is the subject of a great deal of conjecture. If that is the stumbling block, let me remind the House that the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear in his opening speech that the costs of providing cover by the Army so far have been £100 million, not over three years but just during this dispute period. The costs of providing emergency cover now are £1 million a day.
For the cost of 100 days of emergency cover, therefore, we could have a settlement, even if we accepted the totality of the costs, for a three-year period. That does not sound like a bad deal to me, even if we were to accept those costs without qualification. It seems perverse that, instead, we are considering imposing legislation that prevents the very negotiated settlement that I suspect both the unions and the employers would wish to reach via the Burchill mechanism. We should give that process space to work its way through, without putting a No. 10 veto on the possible outcome.
I also want to deal with the subtext of why we are making such a mess of this matter. In his opening comments, the Deputy Prime Minister made a point of referring to the extent to which the dispute had undermined the risk and safety factors of fire cover during that period. His starting point was to say that, before the dispute began, 80 per cent. of the population were able to benefit from a response time of 10 minutes. That is extremely important, but the Government's new guidelines give us no assurance that that response time will continue to be the national benchmark that the fire service must adopt. Everything will be open to local guidelines and agreements, so the current consultation could give the Deputy Prime Minister the power to impose, through the Bill, standards of fire cover that increase the risk of serious injury or death to the public.
We expect the FBU to say, "Fine, go ahead. You take us down a path that will move us from being the best fire service in the world to a second-rate one, although cheaper, with fewer staff and lower standards of cover and response times, and we will say nothing." Any FBU member has a rooted commitment in their soul not to go down that path, but to say that the firefighter's job is to protect people's lives. That is the benchmark against which they would expect to be judged. They will make their own stand in defence of the current standards of service. Any proposal to change that would fundamentally threaten not firefighters' pay, but the public's lives. That is the most important issue for which we elected representatives of our constituents and the wider public must take responsibility.
I return to the fact that, despite all the suggestions for modernisation that have been trailed around in the Bain review and picked up by Ministers, one cannot escape the fact that the settlement must be paid for by cutting some 5,000 firefighters' jobs. No one is willing to say how that would be done without increasing risk to the public and reducing the fire service's current standards of service, although that is the issue about which our constituents will be most worried.
There is a case for considering the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 because there have been many dramatic changes since it was enacted. Firefighters have been at the forefront of saying that terrorism, bio-terrorism and increased expectations of their ability to respond to road accidents and floods have changed the demands on the fire service and must be part of the new risk assessment that will form the basis of the standards of service to which we expect it to operate.
The repeal of section 19 also means that the public loses the right to object to a fire station closure, the reduction of a tender or the loss of fire service jobs. The loss of such a statutory right will turn round bite and every single hon. Member, because if chief fire officers decide that, for administrative reasons, they could save money by closing a fire station, one can bet money that the public who would be affected by the closure would go absolutely ballistic. They would vent their anger on their Member of Parliament, who would be expected to create hell in this House. We would have to stand up and ask why we voted for a process that removed a statutory right from the public and replaced it with the more ambiguous provision in clause 1(4) of the Bill to give the Secretary of State the duty to
"consult such persons . . . as he thinks fit."
It is not exactly the same as a statutory right of consultation, because members of the public who think that they are fit to be consulted will have no legal right to claim that. We should be careful before we remove from the public the statutory rights of objection that they have come to enjoy and expect.
We must also consider the basis on which we are putting the cart before the horse. The process of risk assessment should have come first. For the purposes of my constituency, I want that risk assessment to cover legislation that is going through the House. The Licensing Bill will fundamentally change the character of social life in cities such as Nottingham. The character of how the city works will be changed by 24-hour licensing. It will not reduce the risk of demands placed on the fire service, but it will spread those demands throughout the night. Most call-outs and deaths occur at night. It is crazy to say that the ability of clubs to operate through the night will not create an additional risk factor that will fall on the fire service. I want that built into a risk assessment before we talk about modernising the service and changing shift patterns.
Many of us in university cities have noticed the prodigious growth in the number of houses in multiple occupation by students. Anyone who pretends that that does not carry with it risk factors in terms of fire and the response times for emergency services is living in a different world. I have been out with police emergency response teams and have attempted to discover what happens in the ambulance service. The two reorganisations of police and ambulance services that have affected Nottingham have had disastrous implications for response times. Nottingham city once had an extremely efficient ambulance service that was merged into a regional service because Derbyshire's service was disastrous. The hope and expectation was that that would raise the worst standards to the best, but we now have a mess on a regional basis, not just on a county basis.
The fire service was the only emergency service that arrived to attend a number of accidents. Fire tenders and fire officers have taken people to hospital in fire service vehicles because they were the only people in a position to do so. Yet we face the prospect of similar administratively convenient reorganisations that will take control units and response units out of cities with the result that units will arrive later. We will face that dilemma if we try to impose a settlement and change people's working conditions ahead of the review on risk, which should be our starting point. That is why I plead with my Front-Bench colleagues, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister, to halt the madness that drives us to this Bill.
Let us understand the wisdom of the first law of holes: when we are in one, stop digging. Let us give the FBU and the firefighters the chance to use the Burchill process so that they have the prospect of negotiating a settlement that will provide them not only with job security and an acceptable pay increase, but with a benchmark for a national framework of minimum standards that will raise the cover for risk that the public's lives will ultimately depend on. I urge hon. Members to vote against the Bill.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Alan Simpson, and I am about to disappoint my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, who said that all contributions by Labour Members will oppose the Bill. I want to put on the record the important reasons for my position.
We have heard many claims about being in the Labour and trade union movements, all of them valid and based on experience, and we have benefited from the knowledge gained from such experience. I want to associate myself with the comments on the dedication of the fire service. I know that to be the case from my area, and it is the same throughout the country. I also associate myself with what has been said about the frustration and anger, which everyone can see. There is a theory among fire brigade members, both in London and in my area, that they have been severely let down by the Government. Whether or not that is true, perception, as in politics and life, is extremely powerful.
A lesson from my years of experience in industrial relations, trade unionism and representation has been burned on my mind: the longer a dispute goes on, the sooner we forget its true basis. That is happening now. I do not hear very much about 40 per cent., but I did initially. Firefighters said, "We want 40 per cent. now because we're worth it." I do not think that anyone would argue that they were not—they had a good case. I do not hear a great deal of such talk now. At the beginning of the dispute, my constituents were throwing their 50p coins into the buckets, sounding their horns, waving and so on. Now, however, they say to me, "We can't understand why they don't accept this. I wish I'd got 16 per cent." That is a simplistic view of a complicated, messy situation, but again perception is important, and we must take such views into account. When we deliberate on these important issues, we must consider how we will justify the Bill to our constituents as well as members of the FBU when we go back to our constituencies. My constituents are increasingly saying to me, "George, what is the problem?"
Yes, they call me by my first name, the hon. Gentleman may be surprised to hear—there is no "Mr. Hammond" in my constituency. I pick up more cases in my local Tesco than in my surgery, but that is another matter.
To be serious, we must justify the Bill. My constituents are asking me why, if the pottery workers have had to accept a nil increase in their pay, the FBU will not accept 16 per cent. It is difficult to try to argue that through, and it is a factor that needs to be taken into account when we are challenged in our constituencies about our actions in the House. I shall deal with employers' organisations later, but a related issue is important. If offers are made, as they have been in the dispute, by employers who do not have the money to pay for them, but then ask the Government to sign a blank cheque, the Government are right to say, "Hang on a sec—if you want us to sign that cheque, we want to know what's going on. We want to know how this is going to be paid for. If we do not sign it but the settlement is agreed to, the money has to come out of local government coffers." That would mean lower pay increases for my constituents who work in local government, and a threat to services that, in many cases, are already under strain. We must take that into account when considering the mess that the dispute now represents.
It is therefore not a matter of recognising, as important as it is, the dedication of the FBU and firefighting personnel. Nobody argues about that, or their professionalism, or their anger and frustration. When we are considering how a settlement will be paid for, we would be irresponsible, may I suggest to my hon. Friends in particular, not to take into account the effect that it could have on our constituents who are asking those important questions.
That may well turn out to be the case, although we hope not. If the hon. Gentleman is patient with me, I shall deal with that issue in a moment.
I submit that my general point is a valid one. When employers' organisations offer deals but do not know how they will be paid for, and then ask the Government to sign the cheque, is it not the Government's responsibility to turn around and say "Hang on a second—how is this going to be paid for? We're not going to sign that cheque until we're satisfied about that."? I think that that is a perfectly reasonable line for the Government to take. It is unreasonable for the employers, as happened in this case, to offer a settlement that they know cannot be paid for without the Government signing the cheque and would be bound to affect the services that local authorities provide to our constituents. That is part of the mess that we are in.
When disputes continue for as long as the current one has, we begin to forget the original problems and point the finger of blame. We point at the Deputy Prime Minister or the general secretary of the FBU—it is Tom, Dick or Harry. We look for people to blame and forget about the initial issues. The issue can become one of personality, so people say, "Oh, if it weren't for the Deputy Prime Minister doing this," or "Oh, if it weren't for the general secretary of the FBU doing that." That attitude can become the basis of the debate, and we have heard a lot of it today. In my experience, that is what happens.
The Bill is important in that context, although I have severe doubts about whether it will settle the dispute. I am prepared to lay a bet that, even if it is enacted, this dispute, like others, will be settled by negotiations—they always are and always will be. The Government should not step back when there is deadlock. By the admission of the Liberal Democrats and the official Opposition, even if their position and amendments were accepted, there would be no guarantee of finding a solution. There is a public interest argument from which the Government cannot turn away. There is deadlock, and public interest is at stake. I am far from convinced that the legislation will solve the dispute, but I would be equally unhappy if the Government did not show that they had a responsibility and were not prepared to act on their best judgment. As to whether that judgment is correct, we shall have to wait and see.
If it is the Government's intention and desire to deal with this messy, long-standing and dangerous dispute, and if it is settled by negotiation even between now and Third Reading or Report, in my judgment—I say this with the greatest of respect to my right hon. Friend the Minister—the Deputy Prime Minister will have a duty and responsibility to bend over backwards to facilitate that negotiated settlement in the short period available. If that means using Burchill as the basis for a settlement, I hope—I would use a stronger word if I could think of one—that the Deputy Prime Minister will be able to say that agreement has been reached in the interim for Burchill to be the basis of negotiation for a settlement. In that case, the legislation will not be necessary.
If there is one fundamental criticism of the Bill, in addition to some of those that we have heard from my hon. Friends, it is that it is probably irrelevant. The Government will not send anybody to jail. They will not sequestrate union funds. They will not sack firefighters.
Exactly. The question was asked, and the response was, "Well, there ain't much we can do." That is why I use the word "irrelevant".
However, for the Government to sit back and do nothing when a public interest issue is at stake would worry me almost as much. I view the Bill as a catalyst, no more, to show that the Government are serious about the public interest, which I recognise is an important factor, and to say, "Look, come on, you really have to get to grips with this."
I insist—that is the word I am looking for, not "hope"—that the Government in the interim fulfil their even more special responsibility to facilitate the negotiations, even if that is based on proposals that have been made only recently.
We know what the Tories would do. They would ban strikes in the public sector by people such as firefighters and many other essential workers. They use the word "emergency", but they mean essential.
If the Government said that the Bill was being introduced to facilitate a settlement of the present dispute, I might change my mind, but it contains no sunset clause. Regardless of what happens, under the Bill the Government can impose a settlement whenever the Minister wants to do so. Hence the reason for my concern.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, because he has very nicely led me to the next point that I want to make.
There is serious concern on the Labour Benches that the Bill is a precursor for further measures to restrict or remove the right of people in services such as the fire brigades to take industrial action or to strike. All Labour Members see that as a basic human right. If the Government, even in a flicker of their wildest imagination, thought that Labour Members would support any such notion, they would be making a very serious mistake. That is why, between now and Third Reading, many of us, particularly me, want to see a sunset clause in the Bill. The notion that the Bill is a catalyst to bust through the deadlock in the public interest is a notion to which I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt at this stage, but I am not prepared to support the Government in putting legislation on the statute book that will be there for ever and a day. If the Bill comes back to the House on Third Reading without a pretty narrow sunset clause, I will not support it, and I suspect that many of my colleagues will not do so either. I cannot make that point strongly enough.
The dispute is terribly messy. The Government are being blamed for intervention, and the executive of the Fire Brigades Union has—as I understand it—twice recommended a settlement to its members but has been unable to gain their support. I remember the days when on the odd occasion I was not able to get the support of the members I represented, and it did not do me any good. Like Members of Parliament, any public representatives, in the trade union movement or anywhere else, are there only at the behest of their members. The minute they lose the support of their members, or it is in doubt, difficulties emerge.
My last point concerns the employers' organisations. I do not want to repeat my comment about blank cheques—that approach was a serious mistake—but I have severe reservations about the way in which they negotiated. In fact, given my knowledge of their approach and actions, I should not use the word "negotiated", because I never thought for one second that they were in control of the situation at all. I told the local Staffordshire representative that that was my view. When he attacked my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in the press, I told him that the enormously irresponsible actions of the employers' organisations would threaten their future. The Bill is as much about them as about the trade union, and we must take that into account. Having said that, if the Government intend the Bill to remove that local negotiation process, I for one will not support that. That is why the sunset clause is extremely important.
The situation is a mess—disputes that go on for such a long time always are—and we have a deadlock. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is right to address the public interest issue: not to do so would be irresponsible. I hope that the Bill acts as a catalyst—no more than that—to bust through the deadlock. I am prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt this evening, but I hope that when it comes back on Report it contains the measures that I have talked about. If so, it will get my support on Third Reading; otherwise, it will not.
I rise as a Scottish Member to speak about a Bill that does not apply to Scotland. I am aware that that will cause concern in some quarters, but I take the view, as do many of my Scottish colleagues, that as long as England, like Northern Ireland, is run on the basis of direct rule, we who are Members of this House have not only a right but a responsibility to participate fully in the debates that take place here.
The Deputy Prime Minister spoke very well and very convincingly about the positive role that he has undertaken so far. I accept that he is doing the best that he can in the circumstances and making every effort to secure an amicable resolution. I do, however, believe that he has been dealt a duff hand and that he is operating in circumstances in which the financial constraints that have been placed upon him mean that he has no flexibility to reach an amicable settlement between the three partners involved in the discussions and debates.
We have reached the position where a settlement of about 16 per cent. is possible on the question of salary. The dispute is now over the modernisation of terms and conditions to pay for that increase. I had always believed that the concept of modernisation was all about reorganising existing assets to improve the service, not to pay for salary increases that should be funded in other ways. That is a distortion of the language of modernisation, which many of us have either supported or opposed on the basis of different principles.
Is legislation the way in which to solve industrial disputes? I do not believe it is, either in principle or in practice. In principle, it is incorrect to adopt legislative means of solving a dispute. To do that is not only to centralise and set a precedent but to take the Government back down the road of establishing an incomes policy, as it is they who will have to determine appropriate income. Unless the Bill is a one-off measure and does not set a precedent, it is a dangerous route for a Government to follow, especially when there are hard financial choices to be made. Yesterday, we debated hospitals and devolution and decentralisation. We should not take the opposite direction on the fire service and centralise pay determination.
Let us consider practice. It is possible to enforce pay increases by diktat; measures can be taken to provide for salary increases. However, changes in working practices, procedures and methodology require co-operation and consent, for which we cannot legislate from the centre. People can be forced to turn up in specific places at particular times, but they cannot be forced to co-operate fully. The success of most of our public services depends on the wholehearted co-operation of our staff. Introducing legislation is an attempt to short-circuit the messy, complicated and slow procedures of negotiation. Although they are irritating, they hold out the only prospect of success in the longer term. Any dispute carries a legacy of bitterness, but that can often be dissipated. However, a dispute that is resolved by legislative means from the centre not only exacerbates short-term difficulties but extends the period of bitterness. It is the wrong method.
I was anxious when the Deputy Prime Minister made the explicit threat, as I understood it, that the 16 per cent. might be reduced in a settlement. Even contemplating that takes us down the wrong road. I understand that perhaps we want to exert pressure on both sides to come together, but given that moods are already inflamed, suggesting that any enforced settlement would be less than 16 per cent. takes us in the wrong direction.
Let us be clear that the 16 per cent. is connected to modernisation. Without modernisation, there might simply be an annual payment without any extras above what the figure should be. I would have to make the judgment at the proper time, but £100 million on-cost and £30 million for funding the proposal is a lot of money from the public purse.
I should like to revert to that later because I want to make some other related points. If we had reached the end of the road and believed that we were in extremis and had no choice, I would have to accept that nothing else could be done. But although considerable inconvenience is currently being caused and enormous additional costs are being incurred, everyone accepts that scope remains for negotiations and haggling. I understand that a meeting took place between the FBU and the employers earlier and that another is scheduled for the end of this week or the beginning of next. Clearly, some exchange is happening, and all the parties should therefore be prepared to move. I accept that that applies to the FBU and that members of the FBU are defending some indefensible things. That also applies to some of the employers. However, the artificial cash limit to which the Government appear to be sticking should also be subject to movement. If we genuinely want to see some movement, there has to be movement from all three sides involved, which means that, if necessary, more money must be made available. I do not want to go into the details of the dispute now, because I do not believe that it should be discussed in detail here. We are neither negotiators nor experts; we are just speaking off the top of our heads. The negotiations ought to be taking place elsewhere.
It is unfortunate that, over a considerable period, the impression has been created that certain elements of the Government are spoiling for a fight and want to teach the trade unions—particularly the public service unions—a lesson by taking them on and defeating them. That has to do with the way in which the Government have, in my view, neglected the trade unions over a period, even though there have been substantial and very welcome developments. I pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister and others who have achieved those things, but there has been a difference between content and presentation. We have often done good by stealth but given the impression in public utterances that we see the trade unions as an impediment to the free flow of capitalism. That has clearly been the intention of some—although not all—of those in the Government, which is unfortunate. In those circumstances, introducing this legislation at this time, when the negotiation process has not been exhausted, is potentially inflammatory and likely to result in less, rather than more progress.
The modernisation of public services is not simply about making cuts to pay for salary increases. It is about hearts and minds—about getting people to reform, to work with new methods, to be much more customer and client-oriented and to bring about a revolution in the delivery of public services. To seek that at the same time as engaging in an industrial dispute in which we are trying to force people to accept cuts in the service to pay for salary increases—increases that those people, rightly or wrongly, believe are justified—creates entirely the wrong climate. The way forward for modernisation is to ensure that it is seen as a means not of restructuring but of improving services.
I am inclined not to support the Government tonight, because I do not think that this is the correct way forward. I want to see the dispute resolved, and I believe that the Government should give a period of time to allow a final opportunity for negotiations. If the dispute cannot then be resolved, this might be what we have to do, but we have not yet reached that position.
This has been a very interesting debate, if one can call it a debate. The Deputy Prime Minister has spoken in favour of his Bill and everyone else has spoken against it. One can only imagine that those in the Government's usually efficient Whips Office are having a day off after their hard work last night.
If the hon. Gentleman represents those in favour of the Bill, the Government have an even bigger problem than I was about to suggest.
To consider the Bill in its proper context, we need to see it against the backdrop of the current dispute and the Government's programme for the modernisation of the fire service. I would like to state clearly at the outset of my speech that the Conservatives want a speedy resolution of the dispute and the establishment of a proper procedure for future pay determination in the fire service. We also recognise the need for reform of the fire service and strongly support the Bain agenda for the decentralisation of control and a reconfiguration of the service, so long as that is based on genuine risk assessment and is not simply an exercise in cost cutting. The House is considering whether the Bill will assist in achieving those two objectives.
The men and women who provide our fire and rescue services are held in very high regard in the community, and they are entitled to expect fair pay and conditions for the arduous and sometimes dangerous work that they do. It has been clear to most people for years that the issue was coming to a head and that the formula agreed back in 1977 was not working due to changes in the nature of the firefighters' job and the composition of the work force. It was also clear that some employers, and perhaps the Government, saw a window in which to negotiate changes in working practice and an end to the rigid deployment formulae.
In the aftermath of the
As my right hon. Friend David Davis explained, the Government also must share the blame for the impasse. They did not intervene early enough to make it clear that they would demand that any pay settlement be self-financing. They repeatedly insisted until the very last moment that pay settlements are a matter for the unions and the employers, and nothing to do with the Government. Then they intervened publicly with lead boots to scupper the deal that the unions and the employers had agreed.
Indeed, earlier this afternoon the Deputy Prime Minister criticised the employers for being "not prepared to move" while emphasising that the Government would not find a penny more for any settlement. They oscillate between claiming that they are not directly involved in the issue and emphasising that they exercise a full veto over any settlement through their control of the purse strings.
Once the strikes were under way, the Government's refusal to use the powers available to them to halt that action and their preference instead for diverting a large proportion of our armed forces to providing fire cover again showed where their priorities lie. Now, with the negotiations between employers and the unions at an end, they propose to turn back the clock and reintroduce a power to set pay and conditions that the Secretary of State relinquished in 1959. As far as I am aware, that is their only proposal to settle the dispute.
I have already emphasised our support for the modernisation agenda. At the heart of the proposals is flexible redeployment to achieve fire cover that reflects the real threats to life, not the notional and rigid relationships to buildings on which the current 50-year-old standards are based. The proposals are based on integrated risk management plans to be drawn up by each fire authority, but implementation of those plans will require controversial redeployment decisions, and at least in some areas we can anticipate active local union resistance to specific changes. Such action will fuel inevitable community scepticism about changes that look like cuts. A number of Members mentioned that issue.
The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions have already announced publicly that the settlement of the dispute must be self-financing—paid for through modernisation—so they have cut the legs from under the supposedly objective risk assessment process. They are judging in advance the outcome of that process and judging that, overall, an objective risk assessment will lead to a requirement for fewer resources to be deployed, generating the savings that Ministers insist must be found from the modernisation process to pay for settlement of the dispute. Alan Simpson emphasised that point.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that there appears to be no place in the Bill for integrated risk management plans? If he does, will he join the Liberal Democrats in voting against it?
I shall make the Conservatives' intentions clear, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. The Bill does not constrain the Deputy Prime Minister to act in accordance with integrated risk management plans that have been drawn up and adopted.
The Government are digging a hole for themselves. They have caused a fatal confusion in the public mind between the financing of a pay settlement and the unanswerable case for reorganisation based on risk. When the Government try to sell the changes in the integrated risk management plans to the public, their problem will be that the public will—I suspect—be inclined to see those changes as old-fashioned cuts, based not on an assessment of risk but on a need to balance the books following settlement of the dispute.
Modernisation must also mean a decisive move away from the old-fashioned confrontational methods of pay bargaining. Conservative Members think that the time has come to recognise that our fire and other rescue services are as critical to the safety and well-being of our country and communities as our police and armed services. Many Labour Members raised the spectre of rampant strike-breaking spreading across the public sector, but I have heard not one Member challenge the long-established practice of preventing strikes in the police force and armed services. It is a tribute to the role played by firefighters and other rescue services in our communities that they are rightly seen to be up there with the armed forces and the police as a vital element in guaranteeing security and safety.
No, I must make progress.
The time has come to put our fire and other emergency rescue services on a basis similar to that of the police and the armed forces, and there should be an independent mechanism to determine fire service pay to ensure that firefighters are properly and fairly rewarded for their invaluable work, linked with an obligation not to strike. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden made clear, we expect the Government's promised White Paper to address pay setting in an equitable way that is fair to firefighters, in the context of a no-strike environment.
With the questionable exception of Mr. Stevenson, every Labour speaker opposed the Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister emphasised the military impact of the dispute, and said that in the event of further strikes cover would be reduced to just 250 appliances for the whole United Kingdom, thus massively increasing the risk to the public. Mr. Barron criticised the Deputy Prime Minister specifically for the Government's performance on the night of 21-
Mrs. Mahon went a little further, calling the Bill unjust and even criticising the legality of what was proposed. She spoke of the dead hand of No. 10, although she and her hon. Friends should be advised—after last night, some may already know—that the hand of No. 10 is probably still very much alive and wriggling. She ended by saying that she could not believe a Labour Government were going down this road.
John McDonnell emphasised the depth of firefighters' anger about the timing of the Bill, and his concern about its use as a negotiating tool—or, as he put it, a threat and a strike-breaking measure. He accused his own Ministers of rewriting the history of the dispute every time they rose to speak, and gave us his own version. I will not bore the House by saying which version I prefer. He concluded by saying that the Government had cut the legs from under the FBU general secretary, destroying any prospect of a deal, and accused his own Government of inventing the £100 million given as the cost of the Burchill proposals. He spoke of an historic break between the unions and the Labour party, and of a Bill that is a disaster and a disgrace to the labour movement. Other Members spoke in similar terms, and I only wish that the Deputy Prime Minister had been present to hear them. Perhaps he will read tomorrow of the strength of feeling not just in the speech of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, but among all his hon. Friends.
Our conclusion is that the Government have lost their sense of direction. While publicly espousing an agenda of decentralisation of control, they now propose a hugely recentralising measure. They propose a Bill that will impose a pay settlement at the Secretary of State's discretion without reference to any independent mechanism; that is unfair. They propose a Bill that has no power to enforce the settlement that it imposes; that is ineffective. And they propose a Bill that does not provide for the existing offer to firefighters to be tested properly first, which makes the Bill unnecessary. So the Bill is unfair, ineffective and unnecessary.
The Liberal Democrat reaction is to oppose the Bill, and I fully understand that instinct. Our approach, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden set out, is slightly different. We recognise that the Bill is the only immediate vehicle available, and we prefer to try to engage constructively with the Government, to propose amendments to the Bill, and to seek to persuade them to turn it into an effective short-term measure to resolve the dispute one way or another and lift the threat of further strikes, as part of progressing towards creating a long-term solution that is fair for firefighters and fair for the public.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden set out the three essential amendments that we will seek to the Bill: a requirement for a postal ballot on the current offer before the Secretary of State exercises any of his powers; the introduction during the lifetime of this legislation of a power to ban strikes in the fire service, so that any settlement imposed can be effectively imposed; and a sunset clause to recognise explicitly that this is a short-term emergency measure that cannot be a long-term solution to the problem, because it is not sufficiently just or fair. With these changes, this would be a workable short-term measure to lift the threat of strikes, end the current dispute and pave the way for a permanent solution. Without them, it will be a toothless tiger. It will be a heavy-handed instrument for imposing a settlement without having first required proper consultation, and it will lack the teeth to enforce the settlement imposed. Without a sunset clause, it is a recipe not for modernisation but for a reversion to the pre-1959 situation—a status quo in which huge power would rest with the Secretary of State, and the Government's decentralisation agenda would be abandoned. That, in our view, is not the future for a modern, locally managed fire service.
I hope that the Minister will say in a few moments that he will take an open-minded approach in Committee to our proposed amendments, and to the issues that my right hon. Friend has raised today. On that basis, we shall not attempt to deny the Bill a Second Reading, but I say to the Minister now that if those issues are not addressed in Committee or on Report, we will vote against it on Third Reading.
I can assure Mr. Hammond that the Deputy Prime Minister, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie and I will continue to approach with an open mind the many difficult issues that this entire matter has raised. I should tell the hon. Gentleman that we shall try to avoid mixing our metaphors in the way that he did at the end of his speech.
As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said when he opened this debate, this is not a Bill that the Government would have wanted to introduce in normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances. This dispute has dragged on for a year. It has been a year in which there have been 15 days of strike action and the threat of strike action on many more days; a year in which the possibility of disruption of normal services has never been far away. It has been a year in which thousands of members of the armed forces have been required to provide emergency fire cover, or held in readiness to provide it, instead of performing their normal duties; a year in which the public have faced repeated periods of uncertainty as to whether their regular fire service would be working. It has been a year in which there has been growing concern about the FBU's willingness to accept long-overdue modernisation and the use of new equipment to cope with possible terrorist threats. It has also been a year in which the hard-earned reputation of the fire service—I refer to both employers and employees—has, frankly, been damaged.
We have consistently made it clear that we would prefer the two sides to reach a negotiated settlement. We made that clear a year ago when the FBU first launched its 40 per cent. pay claim. No one should forget that the FBU's claim remains at 40 per cent. for firefighters and 50 per cent. for control room staff. Since then, we have done all we can to try to ensure that a negotiated settlement is achieved. Last autumn, when negotiations broke down for the first time, we commissioned Sir George Bain to undertake an independent review of the fire service. Incidentally, my hon. Friend John McDonnell was wrong to say that there was no consultation on the membership or the terms of reference of the Bain review. The FBU was informed and consulted, and asked to give its views on both those matters. It chose not to participate. My hon. Friend also forgot to mention that a very senior member of the TUC was one of the three members of the review team.
Early this year, after several strikes and inconclusive discussions, we set up a forum in which the FBU and the employers had the opportunity for constructive dialogue on how best to modernise the fire service, in parallel with the ACAS discussions. We indicated that we were willing to provide up to £30 million worth of transitional funding to support a negotiated settlement. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have met representatives of both sides on numerous occasions in the past year to explore a range of options to help to resolve the dispute. But there still appears to be no prospect of a negotiated settlement.
That state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue. The public has every right to a fully functioning fire service. We are therefore seeking the powers in the Bill so that we can draw a line under the dispute, so that the two sides can make a fresh start, and, most importantly, so that the public can be properly protected. In addition, we have made it clear that, dispute or no dispute, the fire service has to change. It cannot be right that the service continues to be riddled with outdated work practices, many of which have remained unchanged for decades. It cannot be right that new options for saving lives, for ensuring better co-ordination between all the emergency services, and for protecting the public against the new threats posed by international terrorism are thwarted by resistance to change. There are better ways—better in terms of protecting the public and better in terms of giving fire-fighters more rewarding and flexible careers.
As the Bain report made clear, modernisation is essential to save lives and provide a better service to the public, but it is also a real opportunity to enhance firefighters' pay and prospects. Bain made it clear that the only justification for a substantial pay increase was the scope for savings from modernisation. Therefore, it is wrong of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge to suggest that we have made a mistake in linking pay with the modernisation savings. That is the clear message from Bain and the only justification for a substantially above-average pay settlement for firefighters.
We value the work that firefighters do, we want them to be able to do an even better job in the future and we want them to receive a fair reward for their work. We will use the powers in the Bill, if necessary, and the measures in the forthcoming White Paper, to make that possible.
Numerous themes were raised in the debate and I shall try to do justice to them. However, I ask hon. Members to bear with me if I cannot cover every single point raised. I shall start with the attempts to rewrite history. David Davis started that theme, but it was picked up by several other hon. Members in the debate. The reality of the Government's interventions in the dispute is that they were motivated solely by the requirement to make it clear that there are limits on what costs the Government will pick up. Any settlement above the amounts currently provided for must be justified by modernisation. Those are the two messages that we have sent consistently from the summer of last year to today.
My hon. Friend Mr. Stevenson made an important speech and rightly emphasised that it was right for the Government to place limits on the costs that we will pick up. It is not appropriate for settlements to be agreed by those who expect others to pick up the tab.
The principle that pay and modernisation must go hand in hand was clearly agreed by Mr. Davey. He differed with us about tactics, but he agreed with the strategy, and was firmly of the opinion that those matters must be taken together.
The second issue to be raised was the Burchill report, and the proposals that it contained. Frank Burchill is the chairman of the national joint council, and in that role he has been involved with both the employers and the FBU over the period of the dispute. The proposals that he has recently made are different from other proposals considered earlier, in that they were not discussed between the parties, as is normal in the national joint council. The employers made it very clear that they had serious reservations about the way in which Frank Burchill had come forward with the proposals without ever consulting them, and without looking into the proposals' costs and implications.
Given those reservations, I wrote to Professor Burchill on
"I was surprised to learn that you had produced unilaterally a new package of pay and modernisation proposals, which goes beyond the employers' final offer to the FBU. I have now had the opportunity to look at what you have put to the two sides.
As you know, the Government has made clear that any pay award not affordable within existing public expenditure provision must be paid for by modernisation. The Government is prepared to provide limited transitional funding of £30m to facilitate the employers' current offer, to be repaid over the next three years.
Our assessment of your proposal is that by reducing the scope and likelihood of savings it would increase the net cost of the package over the three years 2003-2005 to around £100m with no prospect of recouping this investment at all even in later years.
This does not sit well with press reports that indicate you feel your proposal involves 'changes of a minor nature'. It would therefore be helpful to see the detailed costing which I assume you have prepared as a basis for your proposals. As things stand, it is difficult to see how these proposals could be funded from the employers' current budget. As you will appreciate, we have made clear that the Government will not be able to provide any further transitional funding beyond that necessary to support the employers' final offer, which is very much at the limit of what they can afford.
I would appreciate an early reply, and would be happy to discuss face-to-face if that would be helpful."
The House should be aware of the reply that I received by e-mail from Frank Burchill, on
Thank you for your letter.
The intentions behind 'my' proposals were purely to keep open a line of communication and to gain time, if required—a potentially valuable commodity in light of the surrounding circumstances.
I can assure you that I will not discuss the financing, economics or opportunity costs of any proposals with anybody or at any time or in any forum. Similarly I will make no response whatsoever to any comments or criticisms, from whatever source.
This is not my first intervention during these negotiations. I am very conscious of the fact that I persuaded the union negotiators to recommend to their executive the Employers' offer. Needless to say, I will not object to the employers calling the recent intervention 'unprecedented'.
That response is not a promising basis for a settlement, given Professor Burchill's clear unwillingness to engage at all with the issues of costings, and of how the modernisation savings can help to finance a settlement.
The third issue brought up during the debate was the question of a secret ballot. I make it clear to the House that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have said, on several occasions, that that could be a sensible way forward, and that it might provide a basis for gauging firefighters' opinions. I certainly would not want to prejudge those opinions in the way that at least one hon. Member did in this afternoon's debate.
The fourth issue raised was the risk to public safety. It was highlighted in particular by my hon. Friend Mrs. Mahon, who did not think that there was threat to public safety, as she believed that firefighters would respond in an emergency. I accept entirely that, as a matter of course and natural instinct, firefighters would want to respond if there was a threat to life. In any case, where the normal service is withdrawn, there is inevitably an enhanced risk. The military responded magnificently to the challenges of the winter strikes, but there is a limit to what they can do or cope with, given the other pressures on their time. The Deputy Prime Minister has spelled out the necessary reduction in manpower. I must put it to the House that further strike action against that background would inevitably create a greater risk to public safety.
Conservative Members suggested that there should be legislation or other action to ban strikes. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that he is not convinced that that is appropriate, but that the Government will set out our view, as promised in the White Paper to be published in the very near future. Also, the Attorney-General will review the position, as he has done throughout the dispute, and we will keep him fully informed.
We were asked about the duration of the Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South and others asked about the possibility of a sunset clause. We believe that the issue should be considered in due course and I am sure that it will be raised in Committee. The White Paper will set out the basis for future legislation. If it is agreed that there should be a sunset clause and that the Bill should have only a short life, further longer-lasting legislation, whatever that might be, will need to be introduced subsequently. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks.
We were asked about the basis on which the Deputy Prime Minister might reach a decision on a settlement. We hope that we will not have to do so. It has always been our wish that there should be a negotiated settlement. Also, my right hon. Friend is committed by the Bill to consult before any decision is reached with both the national joint council and the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. It would be wrong to pre-empt that.
There is one point that I should make clear. The employers' offer of 16 per cent. over two and a half years, linked to modernisation, depends on savings from modernisation. It is not possible to assume that this is payable indefinitely, or that the offer will remain available indefinitely. There is a time factor here and I must put it to the House that time is beginning to run out.
My hon. Friend Alan Simpson asked about compatibility with human rights legislation. On
On the European social charter, the Bill does not affect the right to strike, nor does it seek to prevent collective bargaining. On the International Labour Organisation convention, article 8 says that a settlement shall be reached through negotiations between the parties. That is our objective—to achieve precisely that negotiation.
I want to talk about misinformation. We have heard a series of wild and inaccurate allegations about threatened cuts and alleged risks. There is no question or possibility of cuts of 5,000 or 10,000 firefighters, or of increasing risks. Our proposals are all about a better response to risk; to ensure a more effective response to the risks of today, rather than retaining the provisions established in the 1940s, which were related to risks to property at that time. There is a real case for change to enhance public safety and it is right that we should do that.
We are introducing the Bill with great reluctance, and only because we cannot sit on our hands when there is no prospect of a settlement. We are doing so to draw a line under this dispute so that firefighters and employers can work together constructively to provide the service that the public deserve and expect. No responsible Government can stand aside and allow the current wholly unsatisfactory situation to continue indefinitely. It is time to move on, and I believe that the House will send a strong message to all involved by giving the Bill a clear endorsement on Second Reading now.