I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Today, we have had the opportunity to debate in detail the issues arising from the powers that we are seeking in the Bill. Like the events of the past year, these debates have illustrated how difficult it is to strike the right balance between the competing interests and points of view of the staff of fire brigades who want a fair level of pay for the difficult and dangerous job they do;
the employers who have to manage fire brigades so they provide a good service to the public within budget;
the public, who are entitled to expect protection from fires and other accidents;
and the armed forces and the police, who have been diverted from their usual duties during the current dispute, often at significant personal and professional cost. But in the end, that balance must be struck. In the public interest, we cannot allow the dispute about pay in the fire service to continue indefinitely. A resolution must be found one way or another, and that is a responsibility that we as a Government must accept.
The Bill will provide us with the powers to draw a line under the current pay dispute and begin to set a new direction for the fire service. If the House agrees, it will enable the Secretary of State, in England and Wales only, to make orders to do two things. Under clause 1(1)(a), he will be able to set or modify the pay and conditions of fire brigade members. Under clause 1(1)(b), he will be able to give specific or general directions to fire authorities about the use or disposal of property or facilities.
The powers in the Bill extend to Northern Ireland, where they will be exercised by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. For the time being, that means that they will be exercised under the direction of the Secretary of State, but as and when devolution is restored they will revert to Executive Ministers.
As a result of amendments made today, the powers in the Bill will have a limited life and will lapse two years after Royal Assent. Any orders already made will remain in force unless specifically revoked.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said on Second Reading that he hoped he would not need to use the Bill. He believed that it was still possible to reach a negotiated settlement and that the time required for the Bill to become law would provide a further opportunity for that settlement to be reached. Hon. Members will be aware that, not long after he made that speech, the employers made a further offer to the FBU. So far as pay is concerned, the offer remains as before: 16 per cent. over two and a half years. The employers said that they could not increase that amount, which is generous in any case, but they have been able to take another look at the modernisation elements of the offer. Modernisation is still the bedrock of the deal, but the employers have clarified what they propose. That gives firefighters more assurances about some of the matters that concern them, especially changes to their duty systems and shift patterns. I believe that the employers have responded to much of the misunderstanding and misinformation that has surrounded the dispute. Firefighters can see that what is on offer is fair. It does mean change, but it does not mean reductions in safety or arbitrary changes to shifts for the sake of it. The FBU is taking soundings about the offer and will decide whether to accept it at a further recall conference on
There are therefore grounds for hope that a negotiated deal is within reach, but our optimism about that prospect should be tempered by prudence. We have thought that agreement was near on previous occasions. I cannot help wondering what role the introduction of the Bill may have played in persuading the two parties to try once again to reach agreement. I am sorry to say, however, that even if the two sides are able to reach broad agreement we cannot be certain that that will be an end to it. The terms of the employers' offer mean that there would still have to be detailed negotiations over the next few months. It is therefore important that we enact the powers in the Bill so that we can intervene if any such negotiations break down. We therefore intend, with the agreement of the House, to press ahead with further consideration of the Bill in another place.
Today, we have considered a wide range of issues, from the right to strike, to rationalising fire stations, to the role of secret ballots. Those are all issues that it is right for us to debate. I urge hon. Members, however, to bear in mind that the Bill is only a temporary measure. Although we should still get it right, what may be right, reasonable and feasible as a short-term, stop-gap measure may not be what we would want for the longer term.
We make no such proposal in the Bill. It is a temporary measure that is focused on two issues. First, it gives the Secretary of State the power, if necessary, in the absence of an agreed negotiated settlement to the dispute, to impose a settlement in those circumstances. As we have said, we do not want to do that. We hope that there will be a negotiated settlement, and there are good grounds for believing that there may be, but the Bill acts as a stop-gap in case that is not possible. Secondly, the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to direct fire authorities on the use and disposal of assets and facilities, for the obvious reason that that enables us to protect the public interest in the event of further strike action where it is necessary to ensure that appropriate appliances are available. Those are the purposes of the Bill and it does not have the wider effects that Mr. Turner suggests.
What might be right in the short term might not be what we would want for the longer term. We have to deal now with the very serious situation provoked by the failure to reach a settlement for more than a year. The Bill is directed at that; it does not attempt to deal with the need for a new long-term framework for the fire service. That means that we have to work within the current structure, accepting that it is flawed. For the future, however, we have the chance to set a new direction for the fire service through the forthcoming White Paper. That is where we will set out our thinking on the role of the service, on how it should be organised, and on getting the right relationship between central Government, the fire authorities and the fire service. We need to provide clearer leadership, and we will start with the publication of the White Paper.
Implementing our policies will require legislation, which we will seek at the earliest opportunity, so that we can put the fire service on a new footing that recognises properly the wide range of activities that it is already carrying out—a far wider range of services than those defined in the Fire Services Act 1947, which still provides the statutory basis for the service. Over the next few months, therefore, we expect to have a debate about what we say in the White Paper. After that, the House will have a full opportunity to consider in detail the necessary legislation.
That legislation will be the right vehicle for finding longer-term solutions to the problems that the service faces: solutions that are not overshadowed by a long drawn out industrial dispute, but that focus instead on the needs of our society in the early 21st century and on the challenges that we face in responding to those needs. Those challenges will require measures to reduce the number of fires and the number of deaths and injuries caused by fire, to improve community safety and the effectiveness of the fire service in preventing as well as responding to fires and other emergencies, and—last, but by no means least—to provide a rewarding and properly rewarded career for the men and women in our fire service who undertake the difficult and dangerous tasks on which we all depend. I commend the Bill to the House. 9.31 pm
The background to the Bill is the long dispute in the fire service, for which the Fire Brigades Union and the Government must share some responsibility. Notwithstanding the history of this matter, I believe that all hon. Members—whatever opinions they have expressed this evening—hope that there will be a settlement on
The Conservatives look forward to the White Paper and to having an opportunity to discuss in a more leisurely way the long-term future of the fire service to ensure that it delivers the service that the people of this country need while providing the career structure and fair pay and conditions that firefighters delivering an incredibly important service to the community expect and deserve.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the services provided by the fire service go beyond attending fires? Will he bear it in mind that, when there are serious accidents, the fire service is often called upon to relieve the suffering that occurs? I have in mind a recent serious incident in my constituency, in which a young man died as a result of a motor cycle accident. The road was covered with blood, yet there was no arrangement in place to ensure that it was hosed down. The blood was emerging through the sand covering the scene of the accident. Let us therefore take account of the wider involvement of members of the fire brigade.
The hon. Gentleman is right; it is not called the fire and rescue service for nothing. As a Northern Ireland Member, he will know of the role that fire brigades play in protecting us against the effects of terrorism, which, sadly, we on the mainland also increasingly have to consider.
We have supported wholeheartedly the strategic objective of the Government and the employers to link pay to the reform of working practice, even if we have not always agreed with the Government's tactics. We have indicated to the Government our willingness to give a fair wind to a piece of emergency legislation designed to impose a settlement, ensure public safety, lift the burden from the military and pave the way for a longer-term and fairer arrangement that will ensure fair pay and conditions for firefighters while recognising the public's need for certainty in the protection that they expect from one of the key front-line emergency rescue services on which our safety and security increasingly depend.
Conservative Members made it clear at the outset on Second Reading that we required three changes to enable us to endorse the Bill as an effective, if draconian, emergency measure: first, it needed to be time-limited; secondly, there needed to be provision for proper canvassing of the views of all fire brigade employees before the Secretary of State's emergency powers were used; and, thirdly, there needed to be a power to invoke a no-strike provision to give the Bill teeth. The Bill introduced on Second Reading did not meet those criteria.
I am delighted that the Government have recognised the need for the Bill to be time-limited so that it is clearly seen as a response to the specific situation in which we find ourselves, but I am surprised by the resistance of the Minister for Local Government and the Regions to the idea of a ballot. I thought that he and the Deputy Prime Minister had indicated that they feel strongly that sense would have prevailed long ago if only all members could have been balloted and that a ballot is an essential step that should be taken. The public would find it difficult to accept the Secretary of State imposing a settlement because of a failure to reach agreement on a negotiated settlement when nobody had consulted, through a secret postal ballot, all the people being asked to accept that negotiated settlement about whether they were in favour of it. I am disappointed that the Government did not accept such a provision.
Of course, I am not surprised that the Government did not accept the proposal for a no-strike provision, although I am disappointed. I emphasise the fact that the no-strike provision had a specific target, just as the other powers have a specific target. The powers would have been permissive to the Secretary of State—they would not have required him to do anything. The Bill has a limited, two-year life, so Labour Members who got terribly excited about what a future Conservative Secretary of State might do with those powers need not have done so.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, because even in my wildest dreams I do not expect a Conservative Secretary of State to exercise those powers in the next two years, so it is simply not an issue. He should have put more trust in his Deputy Prime Minister and Government.
The Bill has a limited life in which to deal with the emergency period when we simply do not have the military resources to cope with a strike, and the Deputy Prime Minister himself has acknowledged that any such strike would place lives in danger. What the arrangements for the future should be is an open question. The Minister says that the White Paper is still coming soon, as it was when we last debated these matters a month ago. We recognise that, if there are any restrictions on the rights of fire brigade members to take industrial action, they will have to be compensated for in such circumstances by an independent and fair mechanism to determine pay.
Despite all the trumped up and fantastically exaggerated scenarios advanced by Labour Members and despite all the synthetic anger about what was imagined to be the thin end of a very large wedge driven into industrial relations, no one answered the key question: what is the point of this emergency Bill and the powers that the Secretary of State is taking if he has no sanction with which to enforce them? How can he ensure public safety when he has acknowledged that strikes will put lives at risk, but has taken no power to prevent them?
The Bill was a far from perfect vehicle, but it was a vehicle, as the opportunity existed to grasp the nettle, to put public safety first and turn it into an effective, short-term emergency measure that would restore public safety, relieve pressure on the military and settle the pay dispute. We could also have considered, in a less pressurised atmosphere, the future role of and arrangements for delivery of a modern fire and rescue service following the publication of the White Paper.
The Government have accepted that the Bill should be time-limited, which is a great step forward, but it would be inappropriate to go down the route of imposed settlements—perhaps less generous than those previously on the table—without properly testing rank-and-file opinion through a secret ballot. It is pointless to introduce the powers that the Government are taking without also taking powers to enforce a settlement made under them.
Sadly, the Government have not been able to bring themselves to follow the inexorable logic of their own Bill, and match the power that they are giving themselves to impose a settlement with a power to enforce such a settlement and protect public safety and military preparedness by imposing, if necessary, a strike ban during the two-year life of the Bill.
Perhaps, given his background and history, it was optimistic of us to expect the Deputy Prime Minister to be able to break out of the mould; but that is what is required to make the Bill the effective emergency measure that we were prepared to support—a Bill that would do what the people would expect the Deputy Prime Minister to do, and put public safety, and the concerns that he himself has expressed in regard to public safety in the event of a further strike, ahead of any other consideration. I strongly believe that that is the primary concern of our constituents, and that they will see protection of public safety as the principal purpose for which they sent us here.
The Deputy Prime Minister has not grasped the nettle. We wish him well in achieving a settlement of the dispute, but he has failed the test that we set as a condition of our support for the additional powers. Therefore—I say this with some regret—we cannot support the Bill.
We have had a long, continuing debate during the current dispute, and we all hope that we are nearing the end of that dispute: we hope for a settlement next week.
I suspect that the Bill may be used to try to threaten the union—that it will be used if there is no dispute. I do not think that firefighters can be threatened: I think that they will stand firm no matter what, and that they will only allow this dispute to be resolved if they feel that the resolution is just. If the Bill does not constitute a threat, it is intended for practical implementation; and I do not think that it stands up to the test of scrutiny in that context.
Let me make a point that has already been made about the logic of the Bill. What will the Government do if, after they have sought to impose a settlement, the trade unionists still refuse to accept it? They will be drawn down the path represented by Mr. Hammond—that of banning strikes and banning trade union membership.
I hope that there will be a settlement next week; but I also hope that the Bill, with its sunset clause, will not be needed for implementation purposes. I hope that we will allow the individual negotiations that will be necessary after next week's hoped-for resolution—negotiations on hours of work, shift patterns and the provision of local services—to take place locally, in the atmosphere that once prevailed in the fire service. There used to be local negotiation, and co-operation between union and employers.
In that event the Bill will not be required; but we must send a message to our own Government that we should never present such legislation again, we should never again try to undermine trade union rights, and—more important, we should never again get into a mess of this kind. The dispute could have been settled last July. We had a second opportunity to resolve it in November, and we failed to take it. Let us hope that we do not fail next week and that the Bill and its implementation will never be necessary again.
Until the introduction of the Bill, we supported the Government's strategy throughout the strike. We have now departed from that line, because we feel—it is a matter of judgment—that this is not the right way in which to resolve the dispute. Indeed, as has been said, the Bill's very existence may harden opposition to such resolution in some instances. As I have said, it is a matter of judgment; there is no hard-and-fast rule, and we realise that there is an element of guesswork in the assessment of the Bill's likely impact on the feelings of FBU members.
We hope to see the White Paper soon, although I fear that the word "soon" should be replaced by the word "mañana", because it is always being promised. It is always threatening to appear. I do not quite go to bed expecting to wake up and discover that it has been published, but we have been given the impression that it is about to appear. We would welcome its early publication because there are issues that need to be addressed, not the least of which is pensions. The financing of pensions is one of the biggest issues that the fire service faces, and we want a resolution to it.
We wanted amendments to three specific areas, the first of which was the sunset clause. We are glad that the Government accepted some movement in that regard. We would have preferred that the Bill fall sooner than after two years, but such a time limit is acceptable.
On the substantive issues of a secret ballot of members and the introduction by the Government of new pay proposals through independent arbitration, we felt that such measures would give the employers and the Fire Brigades Union the confidence that this was a way forward—a way not of creating greater difficulties, but of resolving the dispute. Unfortunately, the Government saw fit to reject both of those measures; had they accepted them, we might have shifted our position and supported the Bill. One glimmer of hope is the Government's resistance to the Conservatives' idea of banning membership of trade unions. The Conservatives will come to regret suggesting banning the membership of those who carry on a dispute for a long time.
Overall, the Bill sets a very dangerous precedent. A particular concern is the use that will be made of it not this time, but in future years by future Governments. It will be alluded to time and again. There will be those who will say, "We had to do it then, so we must do it now," and such legislation will be applied to different disputes and different unions. I am afraid that it could be used repeatedly, and all because a Labour Government have seen fit to introduce this Bill. Our judgment remains that this Bill will not help to resolve the dispute. We accept the strategy that modernisation and pay must go hand in hand, but we believe that that can be delivered through other means. The way in which the Bill has been framed will not help to end the dispute, and we will continue to oppose it tonight.
This is a very sad day for the Labour party and for this House. We are passing this legislation apparently as part of industrial negotiations, but in reality it threatens to take away a fundamental tenet of the British labour movement scene: the right freely to negotiate wages and conditions. The Government are not prepared to negotiate wages and conditions; instead, they are threatening to remove that power and impose a settlement. That has caused anger among ordinary firefighters—members of the Fire Brigades Union—and as a result, their attitude towards this House and this Government is serious. The House would do well to recall many of the comments of my hon. Friend John McDonnell during these debates, and to thank him for all the work that he has put into using this House to scrutinise Government legislation.
Like other hon. Members, I have met and talked to many firefighters in my constituency. They entered into a dispute knowing full well that the Government were reluctant, shall we say, to concede their wage demands. But they felt that as an emergency service—a service that everyone in this House relies on and is happy to praise when an emergency is sorted out in their constituencies—theirs had a good case and a good deal of public support, which it certainly does. Now, they are being told of the possibility of an imposed settlement, or that under that threat they will agree to some new proposal—all of which is to be paid for, apparently, by the sale of buildings and job losses. For us to have reached this situation is a very sad day indeed.
When the question is raised of what will be done next—I raised it in previous debates with the Deputy Prime Minister—there is an obvious answer. If the Government seek to impose a settlement and the firefighters continue their strike action, something else will have to be done.
The logic is clear: the procedure is in line with Conservative proposals to take deeper and greater control of industrial problems that should be sorted out through collective bargaining. I hope that the Bill will not be passed, but I suspect that it will. It will certainly not gain my support. I am pleased only about the sunset clause, but it is a pity that it is such a long time away.
The House should represent ordinary people. The Labour party and the Labour Government should represent ordinary trade unionists, who have supported us throughout their lives. Such people are looking for support from our party and our Government. As I said, today is a truly sad occasion. I hope that a similar Bill will not be applied to other services. I have organised in the public sector and I know the pressures on ambulance drivers and people who work in accident and emergency departments. Such people love their job, but they feel a sense of moral blackmail all the time. We should treat emergency workers properly and with respect. We should recognise their rights under the International Labour Organisation and other human rights conventions and not pass legislation such as the Bill. We should respect the right of independent trade unions freely to negotiate and to reach a free and independent settlement.
Jeremy Corbyn has expressed his opposition to the Bill. I agree with him, but I must say that my process of reasoning is not exactly the same. He knows that we agree quite often, which must distress us both. We agreed on Iraq, for example, but that is by the way, as we are dealing with the Fire Services Bill.
I do not believe that the Bill should secure a Third Reading and I am glad that my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond has made that clear on behalf of the official Opposition. I disagree with the Bill for several reasons. First, it has not been properly debated. I greatly objected to the programme motion: I spoke and voted against it. Its effect was to shut out many amendments—and, indeed, speeches—which we otherwise could have debated. Many amendments have not been discussed, far less voted on, because of the programme motion. The other place will have to debate an imperfectly considered Bill, which is itself a reason for opposing Third Reading.
There are other more substantive reasons for opposing the Bill. We have to start by recognising that, notwithstanding its sunset clause, the Bill is draconian. It gives to the Secretary of State—the Deputy Prime Minister—a unilateral power to vary conditions of service. I made that point in debating the first group of amendments. It also empowers the Secretary of State to order the disposal of property and to impose financial imposts on third parties. The powers conferred on the Deputy Prime Minister are substantial, and the only check on them is the negative procedure. Again, we debated that point in respect of the first group of amendments. I do not believe that the negative procedure is a proper or sufficient check on the Secretary of State's powers—a good reason in itself for not supporting the Bill.
I must ask why the Bill was ever introduced. The reason is that the Fire Brigades Union embarked on industrial action. If that union had not embarked on industrial action, we would never have had the Bill. The House should bear in mind the fact that a power is already on the statute book to allow the Attorney-General to go to the courts and obtain an injunction. If the Attorney-General had done his duty, he would have made an application to the High Court for an injunction and there would then have been no requirement to interfere with the contractual rights of the Fire Brigades Union. The Attorney-General would have done his stuff.
I believe that it is lamentable that the Attorney-General is not a Member of this House. If he were, we, the elected representatives, could have asked him why he was not going to exercise his discretion under statute.
Because he is a member of the other place, and not subject to proper scrutiny or debate, he is not subject to such inquiries. It is another example of the contempt that this Government—whom I detest—have for democracy. If they had any respect for democracy, they would have the senior adviser on legal matters to the Government in this House, but they choose not to do so. The Bill has been introduced solely because the Attorney-General would not do his duty, as prescribed by statute, and go to court. Had he done so, we would not have had the Bill.
The Bill allows the FBU to continue going on strike. The Bill provides no penalties for going on strike, but any hon. Member will recognise that those members of the FBU who go on strike are putting at risk the lives and property of their fellow citizens. What possible moral right is there to do that in a civilised society? It is profoundly wrong. If people do not understand that, the House should take the power in the Bill to say that it is wrong. I gave the House the opportunity, in new clauses 1, 2 and 3, to say that industrial action should not be permitted.
I never criticise the Chair, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but those new clauses were not selected—
It is permitted, however, to comment on what is in the Bill and to refer obliquely to what is not in the Bill. What is not in the Bill is a power to protect citizens from the actions of the FBU—
What is in the Bill is a draconian power, given to the Deputy Prime Minister, to vary contracts of employment unilaterally, to dispose of property and to impose charges on third parties that are not properly constrained by democratic control. That is what is in the Bill, and it is a scandal. Furthermore, the result of the programme motion is that the House has not been able fully, adequately or properly to discuss, far less vote on, the contents of the Bill. We will send to the other place a Bill that may be otiose, but that gives to the Minister or his boss draconian powers. All of us know that those powers are not properly constrained. That is a disgrace, and that is what is in the Bill.
I cannot agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, even though the conclusions we reach are similar. As various hon. Members have said, especially Labour Members, the Bill is not only the wrong Bill, but it comes at the most inopportune time. I cannot think of a worse occasion to introduce a Bill that could be construed as anti-union than on the eve of an important ballot, an important meeting, and an important moment in a dispute that everybody wants to see settled.
The great sadness felt by many Labour Members is that, although a settlement will be achieved, it will arouse resentment among firefighters. I have spoken to many firefighters, both before the dispute began and during it. They have told me about their hopes for the discussions that took place when the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. O'Brien, was the Home Office Minister with responsibility for the fire service. They wanted to move to a modernised service based on risk-based management. Those hopes have been ripped asunder by the dispute, and this Bill will only make matters worse.
That saddens me greatly. No Government—certainly no Labour Government—should intervene in an industrial dispute when there are far better ways to achieve a settlement. I do not like the term "modernise" very much, but we could make the service better and more efficient, and ensure that it could do the things that all hon. Members want.
However, the most important matter has been alluded to many times by Opposition Front-Bench Members, in connection with an amendment tabled in Committee. We have at least had the opportunity to see the Opposition's approach to these matters. That is one good thing to come out of the debate, but those of us who oppose the Bill feel that the Government have taken a risk by introducing it at this time. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see that the Bill could be followed by a raft of anti-union legislation. That much has been made only too clear by Labour Members this evening.
We have managed to get a sunset clause inserted into the Bill. That is our only victory this evening, but it could be a pyrrhic victory. It affects only this Bill, at this time. If there is another public-sector dispute in the future, some other Government could introduce legislation that is timeless, rather than time limited. Such legislation would be designed to bring in anti-union controls that go against the nature of a state that believes in both human rights and labour rights.
That is why some Labour Members are dismayed by the Bill. We will vote accordingly this evening.
This short and insidious Bill introduces unwarranted interference in legitimate negotiating rights. I questioned the Minister earlier about the use of the word "disposal", and his response confirms my view that the Bill will be a vehicle for wholesale cuts, especially in the smaller rural services.
I am very unhappy with the Bill, and I shall be very pleased to vote against it, as will my colleagues and many other hon. Members. The Bill is an insidious attempt to skew the process of negotiation. It is a gross interference with workers' rights. It is incredible that a Labour Government of any hue—new, old, or in any shape or form—should have introduced the Bill. I am utterly unconvinced by the Minister's explanation of the use of the word "disposal". I am sure that there will be wholesale cuts in rural fire services. We will return to that debate at some point.
I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words in this debate. Because of the guillotine, or the programme motion, to use the modern name, we were unable to discuss the provisions relating to Northern Ireland, so I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the fire service in Northern Ireland. Through the years of terrorism, its members have suffered, and some have given their lives, serving the community. As a result of the lawlessness that still prevails in certain areas, firefighters, like other public servants, are attacked as they serve the community.
Reference has been made to sunset clauses. As someone who used to watch those old westerns where the hero rode off into the sunset, I wonder who will be riding off as the hero in this case. The fire brigades will still be around when we are gone.