I beg to move amendment No. 35, in page 1, line 2, after 'instrument', insert
'within eighteen months of the commencement of this Act'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 31, in page 1, line 2, leave out from 'instrument' to 'fix' in line 4.
No. 34, in page 1, line 6, at end insert—
'(1B) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument give specific or general directions to fire authorities about the use or disposal of property or facilities.'.
No. 17, in page 2, line 18, at end insert—
'( ) No order shall be made under this section more than two years after the commencement of this Act, except for the purpose of revoking provision contained in a previous order.'.
No. 22, in clause 1, page 2, line 20, leave out from '(1)(a)' to end of line 21 and insert
'may only be made if a draft of the statutory instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament but such a draft shall not be laid for approval unless not less than 14 days previously each House of Parliament shall have debated a draft of the statutory instrument.'.
No. 23, in page 2, line 20, leave out from '(1)(a)' to end of line 21 and insert
'may only be made if a draft of the statutory instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament'.
No. 28, in clause 2, page 2, line 25, at end insert—
'(1A) This Act can only come into force on a date when the following conditions have been met:
(ii) The Secretary of State has published a report to the House of Commons, stating his view that an order under the Fire Services Act 2003 would not violate Article 8 of the International Labour Organisation Convention Number 151.'.
No. 29, in page 2, line 25, at end insert—
'(1B) This Act shall cease to have effect fifteen months after the date on which it comes into effect.'.
No. 2, in page 3, line 9, at end insert—
'(4A) The powers conferred by this Act shall cease to have effect eighteen months after the date on which it comes into effect.'.
No. 16, in clause 2, page 3, line 9, at end insert—
'(4A) This Act shall come into force on such a day as the Secretary of State shall by order appoint.
(4B) An order under subsection (4A) above shall be subject to affirmative Resolution by the House of Commons.'.
This broad group of amendments deals, first, with the duration of the powers to be granted to the Secretary of State, and the Committee is spoilt for choice. Amendment No. 29, which was tabled by the Liberal Democrats, proposes that the powers should last for 15 months, whereas amendment No. 17, which was tabled by Mr. Lloyd and is, I understand, supported by the Government, proposes two years. We find ourselves, perhaps untypically, between those two extremes, as we suggest 18 months in amendments Nos. 35 and 2.
There is broad agreement that the Bill must be seen as a short-term, defined-life measure to deal with a particular situation in which the country finds itself at this moment. We made it clear on Second Reading that we view the short term and the long term quite differently. We can accept measures to deal with the immediate short-term problems that have arisen in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but certain matters will have to be dealt with differently over the longer term.
Let us consider the immediate situation that the country faces. The fire service dispute has dragged on for a year; lives are being put at risk and a burden is being placed on the military when our forces are already substantially overstretched, with other potential tasks hurtling at them seemingly from every corner and continent of the world at every moment. So, there are two issues there, but it is also clear that the fire dispute is having a negative impact on the Government's plans to prepare the country properly to defend itself against possible terrorist attacks at home. Nobody in the House can tolerate that.
That implies that if the Fire Brigade Union did not begin to co-operate in the deployment of decontamination units, the Government would take other steps. Will the Minister let the Committee know whether any progress has been made on the important issue of the training and deployment of those decontamination units?
We see the Bill, if it has a role, as a time-limited, effective measure—it will be effective, however, only if other amendments, which we and others have tabled, are accepted—to end the dispute, lift the threat of strikes and create a breathing space in which to consider in a less pressurised atmosphere the future organisation of our fire services.
The Bill is not about fairness or any other abstract concept; it is about public safety, which should be the No. 1 consideration of any Government.
Indeed, the imposition of a settlement by the Secretary of State, unilaterally, is a draconian measure that can be justified only in extreme circumstances. We are prepared to acknowledge that the present circumstances are extreme and could justify extreme measures, but if that is the case the measures must be presented effectively, and deliver the objectives that have been set out.
On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister referred repeatedly to an arbitrated settlement. This is, of course, no such thing. The Bill proposes giving the Secretary of State power to impose a settlement that he has devised; he is in no sense an independent or impartial arbitrator. The Bill represents a huge step back from the decentralisation of the fire service that is embraced by the Government's modernisation agenda.
We are in a strange position. A few weeks ago we were asked to vote on the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, as a result of which the Secretary of State would no longer be involved in, for example, sanctioning the closure of individual fire stations. Now, we are effectively asked to reinstate a power under the 1947 Act that was abolished in 1959—to return the Secretary of State's right to impose a settlement relating to pay and to terms and conditions of employment.
These measures can, however, be justified because of the public safety issues that have arisen—because of the terrorist threat in the short term, and because of the impact on the military, which, given its current overstretch, cannot provide adequate cover during an ongoing dispute in the fire service. The Deputy Prime Minister himself told us that in the event of a future dispute military cover would be reduced from the 19,000 troops that were available during the strikes before Christmas to only 9,000, with 250 fire appliances—or "goddesses", as the Deputy Prime Minister likes to call them—and some 300 further specialist vehicles. Just 250 pumps would be available to cover the entire United Kingdom.
On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the powers that he seeks will enable him to secure a pay and modernisation deal. I reaffirm the Conservatives' strong support for the Bain agenda, linking higher pay to improved productivity; but that agenda will be delivered effectively only if the Bill is amended. It is clear that whether it succeeds or fails, it seeks to settle the current dispute by means that would normally be judged unacceptable because there is no element of independent arbitration. For that reason if for no other, this must be seen as an emergency measure—and an essential feature of an emergency measure is its limited duration. It must, in fact, be limited to the duration of the emergency.
One of the challenges that face us is the task of estimating the likely duration of the present emergency. That task has a number of facets, perhaps the most prominent being the need to deploy large numbers of British troops for peacekeeping duties in Iraq. There is also the possibility that as the war on terrorism unfolds, British troops will be called on for missions elsewhere in the world.
The duration of the Bill should be limited so that more complex—and perhaps, in the longer term, more acceptable—solutions can be adopted, with the benefit of mature consideration: far more consideration than we are able to devote to all the Bill's remaining stages in a single afternoon. We believe that 18 months is probably an adequate initial period for the existence of the proposed powers, although the Government could of course seek to extend it at some future time.
Perhaps the Government intend to support amendment No. 17 because it specifies a different period—two years—or because they find the face of its mover slightly more amenable. If they can make a case for a two-year period, we would certainly accept it and withdraw amendment No. 35. Desperate efforts have been made behind the scenes, involving a roll of sticking plaster and a pair of scissors, and I am sure that it is purely coincidence that it is the chairman of the Labour party trade union liaison committee who happens to have tabled amendment No. 17.
We want the White Paper that the Government have promised to map out a long-term solution to these problems. I doubt whether anybody in this place regards the measures and powers in the Bill as a satisfactory long-term solution to the big issues facing the fire service. We expect the White Paper to map out options in terms of mechanisms for a fair pay determination system in the fire service, and to address the question of the use of strikes as a bargaining tool in an emergency service that is of such vital importance to the safety and security of our communities.
The latest version of the draft agreement—the employer's offer—has become a bit more than an offer; it has been discussed at such length by the two sides that it is in fact the draft of an agreement. The previous draft contained a reference to the White Paper, but it has been expunged from the current draft, which appears to internalise the whole process of developing a mechanism for pay determination and dispute resolution within national joint council procedures. Perhaps the Minister can explain to the Committee the significance of that. We are all waiting with bated breath for the White Paper, but it seems that its significance is being eroded by the minute. I would be greatly reassured if the Minister could confirm that it will address the issues of pay determination, dispute resolution and the possibility of a no-strike environment.
Perhaps the Minister could also tell us when we are likely to see the White Paper. On Second Reading—on
It is on the basis that a White Paper and a subsequent new fire service Act are coming that we are willing to support this Bill—provided that it is amended to ensure that it is workable and effective. On that basis, consensus has emerged—on both sides of the House, I am delighted to say—in favour of a sunset clause. It would be good if the Minister could confirm that, notwithstanding the changes to the draft agreement, the Government are still going down the route whereby the White Paper will set out the long-term mechanisms for resolution of these issues. The reintroduction of a draconian power, relinquished in 1959, cannot be allowed to be anything other than a temporary measure. This Bill has to be a step on a clear route map to a long-term solution that is both fair to firefighters and secures the safety of the public at all times.
Amendments Nos. 31 and 34—our amendments, Mr. Lord—are essentially drafting changes to accommodate the imposition of a time limit through the mechanism in amendment No. 35, and need not detain the Committee.
Amendments Nos. 22 and 23, tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg, propose that orders under subsection (1)(a) shall be made by affirmative resolution of both Houses following a debate. Amendment No. 16, tabled by John McDonnell, in, perhaps, a curious alignment with my right hon. and learned Friend, is designed to achieve a similar objective. In view of the draconian nature of the power being exercised and the undoubted level of interest of the Committee in the detail of the order that the Deputy Prime Minister will lay, the requirement for an affirmative rather than a negative procedure—and, indeed, for a debate on the Floor of the House—is not unreasonable. I look forward to hearing my right hon. and learned Friend's speech putting the case for that proposition and also to the Minister's response.
Amendment No. 28 looks like another example of Liberal Democrat enthusiasm for curbing the sovereignty of this Parliament at every opportunity and making it subject to external constraints. The Liberal Democrats are apparently concerned that the Bill's powers may not be compatible with the European social charter or the International Labour Organisation convention. I am not clear about whether that is so, but I point out to Matthew Green and his colleagues that this is, by consensus, a short-term emergency measure—
My right hon. Friend asks "What colleagues?" with some reason. I am sorry to see the hon. Member for Ludlow in such splendid isolation, but I am sure that, when the time comes, he will deliver mightily on behalf of his party.
I know not whether these powers contravene the European social charter or the International Labour Organisation convention; quite honestly, when the issue is one of public safety, I care not either. I take the view that the public safety of this country's citizens is the main issue of concern in Committee today and I suspect that the hon. Member for Ludlow may learn to his cost that that, rather than compliance with some obscure treaty, will be the issue of principal concern to the good people of Ludlow.
We want to ensure that we move as soon as possible from an emergency powers regime to a longer-term, more equitable and more sustainable arrangement that delivers the same objectives. I am usually all in favour of constraining the Secretary of State's powers, but I recognise that the Bill does not provide for normal circumstances and that substantial powers are being bestowed on the Secretary of State for a specific reason, so the constraints advocated by the Liberal Democrats are not helpful and will hinder the delivery of the objectives that the Bill is designed to achieve.
I hope that in replying to the hon. Member for Ludlow on amendment No. 28, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will do better than he did in response to Mr. Davey, who raised a similar point on Second Reading. On that occasion, the Minister said:
"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."—[Hansard, 8 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 921.]
That may be his objective, but it is not the Bill's purpose, which is to impose a settlement. I do not support the attempt of the hon. Member for Ludlow to impose further constraints, but the Minister will have to do better than he did on Second Reading in addressing the substantive issue.
If I understand my hon. Friend correctly, he is saying that it would have been more candid of the Government to admit that they might be in breach of article 8, but to say, in the light of the pre-eminent consideration of public safety, "What of it?"
That would certainly be my inclination, but no doubt the Minister will try to have his cake and eat it by saying that the Government are not in breach, but that if they were he would put public safety first. I have spent enough time opposing the Minister on various occasions to be able to predict, to some extent, what he is about to say.
I am glad that consensus has emerged on the need for a sunset provision for the powers bestowed by the Bill. I shall listen to the Minister's remarks, but I am optimistic that the first of the three conditions for our support for the Bill, which were set out by my right hon. Friend David Davis on Second Reading, will be fulfilled this afternoon. The Government have accepted the need for a sunset clause, in one form or another, and we will be magnanimous about whether it comes into force in 18 months or two years. The important fact is that the Bill is seen as a temporary, short-term response to an immediate problem.
I was intrigued by the debate on the programme motion, when my right hon. Friend the Minister was challenged on the concept of a sunset clause. I was about to stand up and tell him, "Minister, I am your sunset", but being the sunset for the Labour Government is a task rather bigger than I wish to take on, no matter how much the Opposition might like to see that.
I normally listen with enormous respect to Mr. Hammond, as one of the more reasonable faces on the Opposition Front Bench, and he is normally clear and concise. He mentioned the emergence of a consensus today, but I must tell him that I shall ensure that a copy of his speech is sent to the general session of every trade union as soon as I can lay my hands on it. One of the very real differences between the modern Conservative party and almost everybody else could be seen in the words that he used and those that he nearly said.
I shall attempt to shade in the gaps in a moment. Historically, Conservative Governments have tried to honour and protect our international treaty obligations. They were seen as the very centre of what one nation commits to fellow nations, and signing up to such treaties was not seen as a restraint on the rights of Parliament. Indeed, such matters are gifted by Parliament to the Executive to perform on our behalf. The idea that abrogation of our obligation under the International Labour Organisation treaty should be dismissed as irrelevant, or as something that we can trample all over, is outrageous. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on that.
The ILO exists to protect employees all over the planet and, in fair societies, it protects good employers against rapacious employers. As Winston Churchill put it many years ago, we need to ensure that the worst employers do not drive down standards for the better ones. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on whether the Conservative party wishes to stake its name on ripping up international treaties on labour law or anything else. The signals that he has given will be read widely as showing that the Conservative party is still in retreat from the rest of the world and, especially, from the rest of Britain.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the Bill introduces draconian powers. I have enormous misgivings about it, as do many Labour Members. It will remove the ability of fire service personnel to take part in proper negotiations, and that will not help to resolve the dispute, in either the long term or the short term. If the Bill becomes law, it may not even contribute to the process of dispute resolution, but instead be massively counter-productive.
A modernised fire service must be able to deal with conventional emergencies and with the greater difficulties arising out of, for example, terrorism. It is in everybody's interest that fire service personnel can negotiate properly in connection with the changes that take place. In the end, it is not possible to impose an operating structure on any service—
The Second Deputy Chairman:
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he is making something of a Second Reading speech. I remind him that he must speak to the amendments before the House, and especially to the one in his name.
The Bill has a role in the narrow sense that the most important development in the fire services dispute will take place, not on the Floor of the House this evening, but during next week's recalled Fire Brigades Union conference. I profoundly hope that the union will accept the recommendation by its general secretary and executive, and that we can move away from the period of dispute.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will repeat today what he and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister have said before—that the Bill will become unnecessary and redundant if the dispute is resolved. Such a statement would have great importance, as it would amount to the sunset clause that everyone wants. It would not set an expiration date in 15 or 18 months, or two years, but apply in a matter of days.
I accept the general principle that this country should honour its international obligations, unless there is an extraordinarily compelling reason not to do so. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if either the social charter or the ILO convention had the perverse effect of denying this House's right to pass a Bill such as this for a short period to attend to a specific problem, it would be equally perverse for this House to acquiesce in such an arrangement?
I am sure, Sir Michael, that you want this exchange to be as rapid as possible. Most international treaties to which this country is a signatory contain emergency provisions that detail the circumstances under which it is possible and necessary for the Government to abrogate certain rights. These are difficult matters, and require enormous caution. All hon. Members expect such powers to be used with restraint, even in the most extreme circumstances. It is important to put on record the fact that restraint is exactly what was displayed by the FBU and its members while the conflict in Iraq was going on. At that time, industrial action was—de facto, if not de jure—suspended. That is very important, as rational people do not seek to exploit national emergencies. I hope that Opposition Members will join me in paying tribute to the FBU for the restraint that it showed in that period. The spirit of the FBU's response to the conflict was consistent with what Mr. Bercow asks me to endorse.
The hon. Gentleman has drawn the Committee's attention to the fact that the FBU recall conference takes place next week, and he is trying to elicit from the Minister for Local Government and the Regions a commitment that the Bill will, in effect, be scrapped if the conference accepts a settlement. Is it not a curious use of scarce parliamentary time to take up a whole day to push the measure through when it is clear that in 10 days' time we may find that it is otiose? In those circumstances, does not the Bill look more like a negotiating tactic than a genuine piece of legislation?
That question is probably not best addressed to me, given that I have already expressed reservations about the Bill. Perhaps the official Opposition will join me and others in hoping that there will be a proper settlement that is honourable for the FBU and the people who work in our fire services and, of course, for the Government.
My reason for going along with the Government is that I recognise the steps that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government have taken during recent weeks to try to bring an end to the issue. That view has also been placed on record by Andy Gilchrist, the general secretary of the FBU. In the end, the whole House should see the issue not as some polemical political game—I regret that there were shades of that in the hon. Gentleman's speech—because it is far too serious for us to be playing party politics and seeking political advantage. This is genuinely a moment for the nation to reflect on the role of Government, and to call on the employers and employees in the fire service to operate in that spirit, as the FBU is now doing.
On my hon. Friend's point that the legislation is unnecessary and redundant, has he seen an article in Progress—which, as he knows, is the magazine for true believers—in which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, whom I remember well when she was a Bolshevik, indicates that the Labour Government risk being thrown from power because they are losing the trust of ordinary people? Is the measure not an example of the Government contributing to that loss of trust by introducing unnecessary and redundant legislation that is widely seen as anti-trade union?
My hon. Friend will be aware of the old adage about political literature: it has to be good enough to be read between the letterbox and the bin. Progress, alas, has not, for whatever reason, made it to that state. Perhaps, as at Passover, certain doors are marked as not to be called at and, for Jehovah's Witnesses and the purveyors of Progress, my door is marked with secret symbols that I do not yet understand. If so, I am only too grateful to those who marked my door.
My right hon. Friend the Minister indicated that he was aware of my hope that the Government would make clear the value of the Bill if there is a proper end to the dispute when the recall conference takes place next week. If we have to revert to using the measure, we shall be in extremely troubled waters. It would pay all of us to use today's debate as an opportunity not to muddy the waters but to lower the political temperature. My right hon. Friend tried to do that during his Second Reading speech and I know that he will do so again today.
I hope that he will resist the voices of those who want to raise the temperature. The Bill is not of itself draconian, but it will be seriously unhelpful and set a difficult precedent for Labour Members at least to stomach. That is why we need a sunset clause.
I place on record my great concern at the remarks of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, which should be weighed carefully by all hon. Members. He sought from my right hon. Friend the Minister comments about the role of a ban on strikes in the emergency services. I hope that the official Opposition will now begin to flesh out their views, because we know where they are going. They would seek a ban on industrial action by those working in the fire service. That would be totally unacceptable not just to Labour Members but to many people throughout the country.
Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, may I invite him to make clear how the Opposition would circumscribe those powers? Which trade unions and groups of employees do the Opposition consider part of the emergency services? To whom would a ban on industrial action apply? What sort of penalties would the Opposition impose on those who sought to take industrial action, limited or otherwise? How would those penalties operate? For example, would those in the fire services or elsewhere who took industrial action be jailed? It would be helpful to get answers to those questions on the record.
The hon. Gentleman correctly identifies—it did not take much detective work—that we propose that, if the Bill is going to work, it must have a power for the Secretary of State to impose a no-strike provision. However, our target is specifically and exclusively the fire service in which there is a current dispute and a real threat to public safety. I will not fast forward to the fourth group of amendments, but I suspect that we will have this debate in some detail when we come to them.
I heard what the hon. Gentleman said, but I am sure that he has read the Second Reading debate carefully and noted that the Minister for Local Government and the Regions specifically did not rule out the possibility of a no-strike arrangement as part of the longer-term solution to the fire service settlement. He said that the White Paper would make the Government's thoughts clear. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to press the Minister on that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I shall come to his final point first. He should examine carefully the words of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who was straightforward on Second Reading. I think that he ruled out the idea of a prohibition on industrial action. It is up to Conservative Members to press my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, but I take the view that such a prohibition would be unachievable. There are many practical difficulties attached to bans on industrial action.
It is difficult to take seriously the idea that the Opposition would seek to ban strikes in only one part of the emergency services and that they would not use such a ban as a precedent for the rest. There is no logic to their position. It is ridiculous to suggest a ban for the fire service but not for other emergency services. That shows the difference between the Opposition's position and that of the Government and Labour Members.
The sunset clause is designed for a difficult Bill that I do not want on the statute book. I hope that next week will see the end of the talk about the Bill. However, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is suggesting that the Conservative party will campaign for legislation that would impose, come what may, a ban on industrial action by the FBU and those in the fire service. The Opposition are not seeking a sunset clause but a way to halt this Bill so that they could introduce something massively more draconian. That is the message that will go out today. There is a world of difference between the Government, who have their own view, and the Opposition who would seek to implement such legislation on a virtually permanent basis.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows from the national news yesterday about the large fire at Waitrose in Finchley that required the attendance of 100 firefighters and 25 pumps. Does he agree that, had the fire service been on strike, there would have been considerable difficulty in amassing 25 green goddesses to deal with the emergency? For that reason, while the Army is recovering after the war in Iraq, it is important that the fire service is not allowed to go on strike.
That was a churlish remark because the FBU and the serving personnel who put out the fire in Finchley yesterday did not take industrial action during the Iraq crisis. Rather than again trying to increase difficulties, the hon. Lady should reflect on the fact that the best thing would be for the recall conference to bring the dispute to an end next week. Conservative Members do not want that to happen because they want to increase political difficulties. They want political advantage at the expense of the public because they hope, in their narrow way, that the Government are on the defensive. That approach cannot be in the nation's interest.
The hon. Gentleman speaks from the Back Benches but I hope that the Minister recognises that the Opposition have tried to co-operate with the Government in dealing with the crisis. I have made it clear on many occasions—and I do so again—that Conservative Members fervently hope that the outcome of the
That is helpful because it means that I do not have to tell people up and down the land that the Conservative party wants to continue industrial difficulties or that it is in the habit of provoking such things and seeking political advantage from them. Of course, I shall still have to tell people that the official position of the Conservative party is to try to ban people in the emergency services from taking industrial action—it is well worth ensuring that that message goes out.
I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion, entertaining though the debate has been for me. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will make a further thing clear: the Bill must reach a conclusion in a finite time, even if it is successful. We can argue about different time periods but, frankly, I do not think that the periods on offer today are helpful or necessary because we will be in a very different situation after 15 months, 18 months or two years. I hope that we will find an answer to the problem in 10 days, not two years. Nevertheless, it is important for the Government to send a clear signal that they will dismantle the legislation. In that light, I hope that my right hon. Friend accepts the necessity of introducing a sunset clause.
My hon. Friend Mr. Davey would have been speaking at this point but he is absent because he has had to attend the funeral of a close family member.
The major amendments in the group would add sunset clauses to the Bill. There are three time periods on offer: our 15-month period, the Conservatives' 18-month period and the two-year period suggested by Mr. Lloyd. The Government seem to be minded to accept one of the amendments and I suspect that they will err toward their friendly face on the Back Benches, although that will be more for party political reasons than because of specific differences among the seven-month range on offer. However, it would be welcome if they accept one amendment because it is better to have a sunset clause than not to have one at all. We will be grateful if they accept the purpose of such a clause.
We would have welcomed its inclusion at the outset. Much of the debate on Second Reading was on that very issue and we could have moved on to more substantive matters had that become clearer earlier.
It is obvious that a sunset clause is necessary. Ministers were reluctant to introduce the Bill. We do not blame them for that, and perhaps it should not even have reached this stage. The best sunset that it could have is for the FBU to accept the settlement on
I especially hope that the FBU accepts the settlement because one group in particular has been penalised by the dispute. The retained firemen—
I did not mean to interrupt the hon. Gentleman mid-sentence. The Minister might decide to enlighten the House on the Government's position if the vote goes their way on
There is broad agreement that the preferable solution is a negotiated settlement. The Bill is a draconian last resort and we do not want it pursued if it is clear that a negotiated settlement is proceeding. It is not in the interests of that negotiated settlement to rush the Bill through. The hon. Gentleman is in great danger of sending out the wrong signal to the firemen. We want them to take a rational and sensible decision on the offer on the table.
The hon. Gentleman touched on the absence of the White Paper. The amendments relate to several aspects of the Bill and we would have welcomed publication of the White Paper. The imminence of the White Paper is apparently pressing every time it is spoken about, but we still have not seen it. I wonder whether its publication is being delayed until after the 12th. It would at least be open and accountable government if the Minister were to let us know that it will miraculously appear on the 13th after the FBU conference.
Amendments Nos. 22 and 23—
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he was about to mention retained firefighters before Mr. Hammond intervened. One has to accept that there is usually some rancour between the two unions, but it is my understanding that retained firefighters are strongly behind the FBU. Many of its concerns have received a degree of support from retained firefighters.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing me back to that point. I was about to say that retained firefighters are some of the people who have suffered most from the dispute. They have not received pay award increases because they have been held back during the dispute. I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman has talked to retained firemen, but in my constituency, where all the firemen are retained, they have a bit of sympathy with some measures that the FBU has pursued, but they do not have sympathy overall with the way in which its leadership has handled the dispute. Not much has been said about the unfortunate position in which the Retained Firefighters Union finds itself. It cannot negotiate with employers and the FBU negotiates on its behalf. That is an odd situation because retained firefighters might not have the same concerns.
I hope that the White Paper will herald a shift away from that approach.
We have a great deal of sympathy for amendments Nos. 22 and 23, which would ensure that if the procedures were needed, an affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament and a debate on the Floor of this House would be required. Given what hon. Members on both sides of the House have described as the draconian nature of the Bill, that is a minimum requirement.
The Conservative Front-Bench spokesman chose to rubbish amendment No. 28. The Conservatives appear to have spent more time discussing that amendment than any of the ones that they tabled, so they are clearly glad that the Liberal Democrats tabled it. Perhaps they got excited because the amendment contains the word "European"—it was probably a red rag to a bull.
The purpose of amendment No. 28 is to draw attention to the fact that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has alerted to the Government to two potential conflicts arising from the Bill, the first with article 6 of the European social charter 1961. I acknowledge that, at the end of Second Reading, the Minister touched on the potential conflict with the International Labour Organisation convention, and to some extent he dealt with the European social charter, but I do not think that he has fully answered the concerns that have been raised.
Under article 31(1) of the European social charter, restrictions or limitations are permitted if they are
"prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others or for the protection of public interest, national security, public health, or morals."
On the face of it, it appears that the Bill does not conflict with article 6. However, because the Bill would not restrict the power to make orders to circumstances in which there is a public emergency or collective bargaining has failed to produce a satisfactory result it is possible that an order will be made that contravenes article 6. Perhaps it is not the Government's intention to use the Bill to make such an order, but a more detailed explanation from the Minister of why he does not share the Joint Committee's concerns would be welcome.
The amendment also deals with article 8 of the ILO labour relations (public services) convention No. 151 1978, to which the UK has signed up. Exemptions from the guarantees provided in the convention cover high-level policy-making or managerial personnel, employees whose duties are of a highly confidential nature, and the armed forces and the police. There is no exemption for members of the fire services—they are not mentioned. The Government may argue that the article does not prevent them from imposing a solution if collective bargaining has failed to produce agreement, but the Bill will not restrict the use of the power to make orders in circumstances in which collective bargaining has been attempted but has failed to produce a satisfactory result within a reasonable time, so it is possible that an order will be made in circumstances that give rise to a violation of article 8 of the ILO convention.
The Minister might say that those circumstances will not arise, but clearly the Joint Committee did not raise those concerns lightly. Until today, no substantive comment has been made on the Floor of the House about the two concerns.
We were right to table the amendment, with a view to ensuring that the Government at least address the concerns that have been raised. We await the Government's reaction. Overall, the sunset clause is the most critical. We do not want the Bill to contain an open-ended power that can be used by the Government or future Administrations in unnecessary circumstances. We hope that there is agreement across the Floor of the House and that the Government have seen the light. Perhaps I should say that they see the light ending. We look forward to their acceptance of the sunset clause.
I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd that it is important that we say nothing today that will jeopardise the opportunity of a negotiated settlement next week, despicable though the Bill is as an attack on trade union rights, but I will put that to one side.
My amendment does not provide for a sunset clause, although I support amendments that contain such clauses. Indeed, I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central.
Amendment No. 16 provides a trigger clause. I remember my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister saying in the House that he was the only Secretary of State to introduce a Bill that he did not want to see implemented. He said that in the hope that the negotiations would lead to a settlement before there was a need to introduce legislation, to finalise it and eventually to gain Royal Assent. I drafted an amendment in that spirit.
Before the Act is implemented, my amendment would require the Secretary of State to return to the House with an order that the House would have to determine by affirmative resolution. Obviously, negotiations would continue. The Secretary of State would have the opportunity to return to the House with a report on the progress of those negotiations, on the basis of whether they were satisfactory for the employer and employee and for the Government overall, and therefore representatives of the community overall. My amendment is in the spirit of the Deputy Prime Minister's approach to this legislation. Indeed, my right hon. Friend was applauded for his conciliatory approach during the debate that took place in May.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's premise that it would be good to determine the order by affirmative resolution. I can assure him that whatever he does, when the order is made by negative resolution, he can be certain that the official Opposition will pray against it, whatever it says, good or bad, to ensure that there is a proper debate.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments. We should ensure that we should have a debate whenever we can.
The purpose of my amendment is to enable my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to report back to the House. We can then determine whether the Bill is necessary and whether it should be enacted and implemented. It would provide an opportunity for the Government to get off the hook, because the Bill has ramifications that go wider than the fire service. Indeed, it has ramifications for overall trade union rights. It could set a precedent—not, I hope, for this Government—for other Governments who may wish to introduce legislation to impose settlements in other disputes. As soon as we go down that slope, we start to undermine some basic human rights that the Labour party has campaigned for since its inception. Other parties that are represented in the House have also signed up to them in terms of national legislation and European-wide legislation.
I will not press my amendment to a Division, but the purpose behind it is to try to help the Government to get off the hook, given the intemperate legislation that they have introduced, and to do so before that legislation is implemented. We hope that there is a settlement and that the proposed legislation will not be necessary. However, if the Government wish to proceed, I shall certainly support the sunset clause that has been proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central.
I support the sunset clause. I hope the Government will accept the amendment moved by Mr. Lloyd, which I understand is their intention. I am slightly surprised that such a provision was not written into the Bill, but on the principle of welcoming a sinner that repenteth, I suppose we should not be too churlish and grumble now, though I am very surprised that we are having a Committee stage on the Floor of the House rather than having the Prime Minister making a statement, as was requested in points of order, but that is a wider matter that I shall not address now.
My amendment No. 23 is the standard affirmative procedure resolution. Amendment No. 22 is not, and I shall explain in a moment why I tabled it. We need first to understand the extensive nature of the powers set out in clause 1. There are three substantive powers in that clause on which we need to focus. First, it gives the Secretary of State a unilateral power to vary contracts of employment. In other words, the Secretary of State can by unilateral action change contracts of employment already in place. That is a wide power.
Secondly, under clause 1(1)(b) the Secretary of State can direct the disposal of property of which he is not the owner. Again, that is a pretty wide power. Lastly, though perhaps not surprisingly given that it emanates from the Government, clause 1(2)(c) includes the power to impose charges on third parties. Those are extensive powers—the power unilaterally to vary a contract of employment, the power to direct the disposal of property and the power to impose financial burdens, all at the fiat of the Secretary of State. We need to ask ourselves what fetters and constraints are imposed on the Secretary of State. Precious few, is the answer.
I recognise, of course, that the negative procedure is envisaged by the Bill, and I shall say a word about that in a moment. I acknowledge that the Bill contains provisions for consultation—consultation with lots of people, rather unspecified, but not with the House. The House is cut out of the process, save by the negative procedure, notwithstanding the fact that we are dealing with the variation of contracts, the disposal of property and the imposition of financial burdens. The one set of people who do not have a decisive say is us, the representatives of the people—not surprising, as I say, coming from this Government.
Those are the problems that my amendments are designed to address. Amendment No. 23 is the standard affirmative resolution procedure—that is to say, the statutory instruments cannot become law unless they are approved in both Houses of Parliament. That, I should have thought, was the very minimum that the House would wish to require of the Government. However, it does not address the real problem.
Affirmative resolutions are just affirmative resolutions of statutory instruments, and statutory instruments are not amendable. They can be rejected in their entirety or approved in their entirety. What the House does not have the power to do is to amend a statutory instrument, by adjusting its terms, deleting part of it or inserting something else in it. It is an extraordinarily imperfect method of controlling what is effectively legislation.
That is the reason for my amendment No. 22. Very occasionally—I regret to say, very occasionally—Governments lay before Parliament a draft of the statutory instrument before Parliament is asked to vote on it, so that there can be a debate, sometimes 14 and sometimes 21 days before the substantive discussion. That gives hon. Members an opportunity to make a point about the statutory instrument and, hopefully, affect the outcome.
That is a pretty miserable way of controlling government itself, but it is the only mechanism that parliamentary procedure currently allows. We should give ourselves the power to amend statutory instruments just as we amend Bills, but we have not done so and we must use the procedures that are available to us. Amendment No. 22 would use one of the few methods that is open to us.
Using the amendment, I would wish to argue the case for imposing on members of the fire brigade unions a prohibition on the right to strike. I certainly think that that is a proper issue to discuss, as it was in respect of the police service. After all, the police regulations and the Police Act 1996—incidentally, their terms are replicated in new clauses 1 and 2, which were not selected for discussion—prohibit such action in respect of the police. I see no possible justification for members of the fire brigade to go on strike at any time. I think that it is very reprehensible indeed that, in pursuit of an industrial action, they should put at risk the life and property of their fellow citizens. I think that that is quite wrong.
I would not say no as a matter of principle, as I would regard each class on its merits. We are now talking about the fire brigade, to which I shall confine my remarks, but that does not mean that I would not make the same comment about other services in appropriate circumstances. I would treat each on its own merits.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman think again about what he said about putting lives at risk? During the strike, adequate cover was provided and, to be fair, when FBU members were called upon, they broke the strike to avoid that outcome.
I am perfectly prepared to accept that members of the fire brigade broke their strike and came out to help on a number of occasions, but one cannot seriously say as a matter of general principle that members of the fire brigade do not put at risk the lives of their fellow citizens or their property if they go on strike. That is the inevitable consequence of strike action and I happen to think that it is profoundly wrong. I think that this House should have a proper opportunity to debate that. Speaking for myself, I would like such prohibitions to be incorporated in statute law.
One does not have to be very bright to spot that, as it is the inevitable consequence of members of the emergency services going on strike. While individual members might break strike action on occasion, the inevitable and probably intended consequence is to put pressure on the Government. Those on strike put pressure on the Government by putting at risk the lives and property of their fellow citizens. I happen to think that that is profoundly wrong.
I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the right to strike, which I think is a hard won right that we should preserve in this country. Nevertheless, does not his logic, which I shall accept for a moment, drive him to conclude that, if no right to strike is allowable in the fire service, no right to impose a settlement should be allowed on the part of a Government? If there is no right to strike, the fire service should have an independent decision-making process for agreeing proper wages and conditions for firemen and women.
I start from the first proposition—that there should not be a right to strike. Let me say that when I was Prisons Minister, I argued the same in respect of prison officers, as I thought it entirely wrong for them to take industrial action. I also happened to be Police Minister some way back, and I am extremely glad that the Police Act 1996 and police regulations prevent police officers from going on strike. The same is true of the armed services—and quite right too.
The question whether the Secretary of State should have a power unilaterally to impose a prohibition on the right to strike is another matter.
The important point is that the House, not the Secretary of State, should decide the matter. Amendment No. 23 would at least provide for the affirmative resolution procedure to allow the House to give its support.
I have gone a little wide of what I wanted to say—I am grateful for your indulgence, Sir Michael—in arguing vigorously the case against strike action by fire brigade members, which I feel very strongly about. In any event, these powers are important because they constitute both a unilateral variation of contracts of employment and a right to impose financial burdens and to dispose of property. That should be done only with the proper authority of this Committee. The measure would be imperfect even if the House accepted amendment No. 22, but it is the least that we could properly do, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will consider that.
First, I record as a declaration of interest my membership of a trade union and say that we should fiercely defend the right to strike, which is so important for trade unions.
I want briefly to speak in support of amendment No. 16 and the amendments tabled in the name of my hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd. The overall point is that we are spending an enormous amount of time debating these issues when we should be talking about the future modernisation of the fire service and the part that the pathfinder report can play in that. In that context, many hon. Members, including me, will listen carefully to every word that the Minister says in response to this group of amendments so as to judge whether the Bill may be unnecessary, given that a negotiated settlement may follow the conference that is taking place in Glasgow next Thursday. Firefighters, too, will listen carefully to his comments, especially in relation to the sunset clause and the affirmative resolution, to determine whether the Government intend to allow a negotiated settlement to be reached. Whatever happens, without such a settlement we will not have the necessary goodwill from everybody to take the agenda forward.
I respect the generosity that my right hon. Friend the Minister extended towards Staffordshire MPs when he met us shortly before the recess. We told him how important it was that a negotiated settlement should be reached, irrespective of the Bill, and that, having met FBU members and the chief fire officer, we want to ensure that not only the FBU but the employers are able to advance the modernisation agenda. His response will be carefully scrutinised, and I await it with great interest.
The amendments predominantly deal with the issue of whether the Bill should be time limited, which was raised by several hon. Members on Second Reading. At the time, I said that that could be considered in Committee, and so it has proved. As we have made clear on several occasions, the Bill is part of our strategy for dealing with the exceptional set of circumstances presented by the current fire dispute. It is not a vehicle for dealing with our longer-term vision for the fire service, which will be set out in the White Paper that we expect to publish shortly.
I hope that hon. Members will understand that there are always timetable issues involved in the publication of important documents, but it is our intention to publish the White Paper in the very near future.
As the Committee will know, we are committed to modernising the fire service, and the forthcoming White Paper will describe our proposed reforms in detail. I hope that it will be helpful to the Committee if I take a little time to describe how the Bill and the White Paper will complement each other. Before I do so, however, I want to make it quite clear to my hon. Friends that there is no wider application to any other industrial relations situation implicit in the Bill; it relates specifically to the current position in the fire service. That has been clearly stated by the Deputy Prime Minister and me on many occasions, and I want to make it absolutely clear to the Committee tonight.
The powers that the Bill would confer would enable us to draw a line under the present dispute. The Bill should therefore be a temporary measure, designed solely to address the current dispute and its immediate aftermath. For the longer term, the White Paper will set out comprehensive proposals for a new framework for the fire service that I believe will give it a new sense of purpose and prevent the kind of stalemate that has characterised this industrial dispute. Mr. Hammond asked me whether the Bill would address some of the difficult issues that have been thrown up by the negotiations, and I can give him the assurance that he is seeking: we shall certainly set out proposals for a longer-term framework which should ensure a better future without the kind of unproductive stalemate that we have encountered in the course of the last few months.
I should also say to the hon. Gentleman that there is absolutely no significance, so far as I am concerned, in the textual changes in the later stages of the employers' offer. The employers assure us that those changes are entirely compatible with their objective of ensuring the modernisation of the fire service while giving reassurance to worried members of the Fire Brigades Union that some of the wilder fears that have been expressed about some of the consequences are completely unfounded. Those assurances were used as a basis for changes to the document, to give reassurance. That is an entirely sensible and proper thing for the employers to have done, but it in no way changes the fundamental principle that the pay offer of 16 per cent. must be linked to modernisation, and that modernisation must achieve the necessary savings to ensure that the offer is affordable.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about the deletion of the reference to the White Paper, but does he not see at least a message, if not a specific significance, in the removal from paragraph 1.1 of the following words?
"This is a package agreement, which integrates changes to modernise the fire service with associated pay rises, which depend upon the implementation of the entire package."
Those words have been expunged. Is there no significance to that?
We have made it quite clear to the employers on many occasions that the interim funding of £30 million that we have pledged to make it possible for them to meet the costs of this settlement—given that it will take some time for the benefits of modernisation to flow through and to meet the costs implicit in the offer—is the maximum that is on offer, and that we shall not meet any additional amount. The employers are quite clear about that, and hence about the fact that the offer has to ensure that savings can be made over that time scale to enable them to keep within their budgets. They have made it clear to us that they are satisfied that the latest offer achieves that objective, and of course it is in their interest to do so because, financially, they will have no other means of meeting the costs of the settlement.
The White Paper will articulate the Government's vision for the fire service. It will set out the reforms that we have in mind to ensure that the service is well managed and efficient, serving the needs of the community and able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. We intend to set out the legal, institutional and managerial changes required to deliver that vision. One of the keys to this is to set clear targets for fire and safety outcomes, to support local analysis of how these can best be achieved, and to insist on best value in the way in which services are delivered.
In the context of this long-term approach, we are prepared to accept the principle that the Bill should be time-limited. However, we believe that the time limits of 15 months, as set out in amendment No. 29 tabled by the Liberal Democrats, or 18 months, as proposed in amendments Nos. 2 and 35 tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, are too short. I will explain why.
Even when a settlement has been achieved, whether by agreement or by imposition, the new direction that modernisation requires will not be achieved overnight. It therefore makes sense to retain the powers that the Bill will confer until we can be reasonably clear about the fact that the improvements that we want to see are well on the way to being achieved.
I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, but I want to make a little more progress. It is important for the time scale to be fully understood.
A time limit of 18 months would last to around the end of 2004, assuming that the Bill receives Royal Assent this summer. That sounds a long time away and it might just allow sufficient time for any Bill introduced in the next Session—one designed to implement the White Paper policies—to come into effect, although that could not be guaranteed if the parliamentary passage of such a Bill were prolonged. With a 15-month time limit, there would be a serious risk of those powers lapsing before any Bill setting out our long-term strategic framework even received Royal Assent, let alone came into effect.
We should also bear in mind the fact that the fire service pay settlement date is November each year. The deal now on the table would change that by bringing the date forward to July, but if it were not accepted—of course, the powers in the Bill are designed for a situation in which there is no negotiated settlement—we would face the possibility of having to make an award not only for November 2002 and November 2003, but perhaps for November 2004. If we were in that situation, it would not help to be working against an 18-month time limit that ran out in December or January, and certainly not a 15-month time limit that ran out in September or October.
In any event, experience has taught us that we need a back-stop. Fire service reform and the legislation that that entails are Government priorities. The Bill should be a stop-gap that enables us to deal with the immediate future, but does not tackle all the long-term challenges. At the moment, there are grounds for optimism about the outcome of negotiations between the employers and the FBU. We may not even need to use these powers at all. As we have always made clear, that is our hope.
I respond to my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) by saying that the Deputy Prime Minister and I have clearly indicated on many occasions that our objective is that there should be a negotiated settlement and that if that is achieved we will not need to use the powers in the Bill. That is a clear commitment. This is a stop-gap. We hope that it will not be necessary to use these powers.
I would be grateful if the Minister clarified the distinction between not using the powers and abandoning the Bill, because it seems to me to be important. It is perfectly possible that on
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point that is obviously in our mind. There have been worries over the past few months that agreements appeared to be on the verge of being reached, but were not achieved. There may well be areas that are less enthusiastic about reaching an agreement than others. I sincerely hope that an agreement is reached, that next week's recall conference votes decisively in favour of what is a good offer from the employers, and that there will be wholehearted commitment to implementing the agreement. Of course, it would be foolish of us to assume that that will be the case.
As I have made clear, we believe that there is a need for provision to cope with the circumstances between now and the implementation of the Bill that will give effect to our White Paper proposals, which is why I have said that the 18-month and 15-month periods are probably too short. So I confirm our belief that this Bill should proceed to the statute book, but we do not intend to invoke its powers if there is a settlement and it is implemented in the way that we all hope it will be.
No. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has made clear on many occasions his earnest hope that he will not need to use these powers, which is different from saying that he does not want the Bill to be enacted. We believe that the Bill is necessary.
Earlier, my right hon. Friend made it very clear that the Bill was intended to deal with the current dispute and its immediate aftermath. I understood him then to say that he needed it as a back-stop for implementation of the White Paper. That surely flies in the face of the trust that we need in order to secure a settlement by agreement. I am sorry to return to this issue, but is the Bill intended to deal with the immediate dispute—which was my impression—or to enable the White Paper to be implemented?
Let me try to explain. This is an important issue, and the two elements are closely related.
The offer from the employers involves a settlement over two and a half years, during which modernisation will fund much of the cost of the firefighters' increased pay, which will be given in three stages. The two must go hand in hand. Without implementation, the employers would clearly find it impossible to meet the commitment to increased pay. That is why the period after agreement is closely, and rightly, associated with our current position.
As I have made plain to the Committee, in parallel with that we intend to publish in the near future a White Paper providing a modern framework for the fire service. We recognise that the current arrangements, which date back to 1947, are out of date in many respects and need to be reformed. The White Paper will set out our vision for the future of the fire service. We intend to seek legislation at the earliest opportunity after that, but, as my hon. Friend knows, it cannot happen quickly.
The implementation of the subsequent Bill is likely to take at least until the end of the 18-month period specified in the amendment. If it were delayed, there would be a hiatus between the lapsing of this Bill and the implementation of the new one. We do not think that that would be healthy or sensible. We think that the new framework for the fire service should be introduced as early as possible, but that the lapsing of this Bill should not precede that.
I am trying to be constructive. Can my right hon. Friend explain why the combination of a sunset and a trigger clause does not satisfy his requirements and those of the Deputy Prime Minister? A sunset clause recognises that the Bill will lapse in due course. A trigger clause gives the Government an opportunity to say, "We will not implement this legislation unless we have a difficulty. Then we will come back to the House, explain the difficulty, and if necessary proceed to implementation."
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall deal with that when I deal with his amendment, which seeks to introduce such a trigger clause. He stressed that the amendment had been tabled in a constructive spirit, and I hope to respond in the same spirit.
As I have said, we know from experience that recommendations to conference from the FBU executive are not always accepted. We would rightly be open to criticism from Members, and indeed from the wider public, if in 15 or 18 months we found ourselves facing further disruption and frustration, but without the powers in the Bill. A two-year time limit would, we believe, provide more certainty. I am pleased to say that we will therefore accept amendment No. 17, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central.
In addition to providing a sunset clause to a realistic time scale, his amendment has the added benefit of permitting the Secretary of State to revoke orders made under the Bill after its order-making power has ceased to have effect, should that be necessary. 5.45 pm
Opposition Members have suggested that only the power to fix or to modify conditions of service should be time limited, so that the Secretary of State can continue to give directions to fire authorities about the use of property or facilities after 18 months have elapsed following Royal Assent. That is not appropriate either, for the reasons that I gave earlier. The White Paper and consequent substantive legislation will address the Secretary of State's relationship with the fire authorities in the round.
I may have missed something, but although amendment No. 35 may have that effect, amendment No. 2 clearly states:
"The powers conferred by this Act shall cease to have effect eighteen months after the date on which it comes into effect."
I understand that point. The hon. Gentleman has two amendments in his name and they would have different effects. Amendment No. 35 would have the effect that I just described, so I hope that he will accept that our proposal is the sensible way forward.
Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 deal with the parliamentary procedure for making orders under the Bill and are, as we heard from Mr. Hogg, alternatives. Both require orders made under clause 1(1)(a), on conditions of service, to be approved by a resolution of both Houses. However, amendment No. 22 would require that an order also be debated in draft by each House not even than 14 days before it was laid. I heard the justification advanced by the right hon. and learned Gentleman—that that would allow amendment of a statutory instrument that would otherwise not be possible. However, such orders would be made only in circumstances where there was a serious short-term need for action because of—as the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge rightly pointed out—a potential risk to the public.
The powers contained in clause 1(1)(b) in particular, relating to the deployment of equipment and appliances in the interest of public safety, would need to be used very quickly indeed. That is why, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand, we have not made provision for parliamentary approval of those powers. If there were a process whereby the powers could be used to ensure that aerial appliances or other firefighting equipment that otherwise might not be made available could be made available in a hurry, he would find it difficult to justify a procedure involving two—
I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman in a moment; I am trying to explain my reason for not accepting his amendment. The public would find it odd that not just this House but the other House was expected to debate, on two separate occasions, whether it was appropriate for the Secretary of State to use those powers to ensure the deployment of fire appliances to protect public safety and save people's lives. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that that rather elaborate procedure simply would not be appropriate in such circumstances.
The right hon. Gentleman has focused on the power to order the deployment of facilities of various kinds. Of course, the argument that he advances does not apply to the power to
"fix or modify the conditions of service", particularly remuneration. No such urgency exists there; perhaps he would care to confine his remarks to the power to deploy the facilities.
With the greatest of pleasure, because, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, in terms of the power to fix conditions of service there is a separate requirement—an obligation on the Secretary of State to undertake consultation. So there will be a full opportunity for the views of those most closely involved—including those working in the fire service, the employers and the public—to express their views before any decision is taken. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman regards that as appropriate.
We are openly seeking these powers on a temporary basis, so the procedures laid down will have only a limited life. As I have said, we will set out in the forthcoming White Paper our longer-term strategy.
If amendment No. 16 were accepted, the Bill would be commenced by order, which would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. As currently drafted, the legislation would commence on enactment and the order-making powers would be immediately available to the Secretary of State. Subject to the Bill's other provisions—such as those on consultation, to which I have just referred—the Secretary of State would be able to make a pay award or give directions to fire authorities straight away. I believe that that is desirable, for the reasons that I have outlined.
It would mean that firefighters could receive their pay award relatively quickly. Matthew Green rightly pointed out that many retained firefighters have not received a pay increase since November 2001 and, quite reasonably, feel aggrieved about it. Many have not been involved in the dispute, and with the prospect of continued protracted delay much can be said in favour of taking action to ensure that firefighters receive a pay increase relatively quickly.
Secondly, in the event of further strikes, the Secretary of State might need to give urgent directions to a fire authority to ensure that property and facilities are available to those providing emergency cover in order properly to protect the public. The amendment would inevitably cause delay, frustrating the wishes of many firefighters to receive a pay award and placing the public at unnecessary risk.
Amendment No. 28 deals with human rights, about which hon. Members are understandably concerned.
I am incredulous about the process that the Minister suggests would encompass delay. He makes two specific points, the first of which is about the pay award. If agreement is reached next week, will the Secretary of State determine the pay award under the Bill, or will previous negotiation procedures apply? If the new legislation applies, we would have to wait for it to pass through the House of Lords before we could proceed with the pay award. I thought that current negotiations related to current negotiating practices and that an award could be agreed on that basis.
Secondly, if disputes arise in future, are we suggesting that the Secretary of State would not have time to discuss the matter, produce a report and decide whether the legislation should be implemented? Disputes can arise without necessarily incurring delay. The Government are not suggesting real practical problems and the trigger mechanism would assist rather than obstruct the resolution of future disputes.
It has always been clear that our objective is to secure a negotiated settlement. If such a settlement is secured, it will proceed and the powers in the Bill will neither be needed nor used. If a negotiated settlement is reached, there is no question of the Bill causing delay. If it is not, many firefighters have waited a long time for a pay settlement and might welcome a settlement being imposed quickly in preference to further prolonged negotiation and discussion, which the amendment would require.
Secondly, if the dispute were to continue without agreement being reached, strike action could take place at seven days' notice. My hon. Friend will know the relevant industrial relations legislation that applies. In those circumstances and in the light of evidence that the Deputy Prime Minister provided to the House a month ago about the limited ability of military personnel to cope with such an emergency, having powers in place to ensure that facilities are available to protect the public—the public have paid for them—is surely an overriding requirement. It would be perverse to prevent the Secretary of State from using such powers urgently to protect the public interest.
The amendment is not designed to prevent the Secretary of State from using the powers, but to enable him to report back to the House so that the House can decide whether to activate them. Are we saying that the House could not clear the decks to deal with an order presented to it? A statement would be made to the House in any case. I simply do not understand what the practical problems are; they seem to be invented. The purpose of the amendment is to get the Secretary of State off the hook and abide by the spirit of the Deputy Prime Minister's commitment to the House that he did not want the legislation enacted.
I have to tell my hon. Friend that the Deputy Prime Minister's concern is different: he wants to ensure that he has the power to act expeditiously if necessary to protect the public. I am sure that my hon. Friend can envisage agreement not being reached next week—though I hope it will be—and the dispute rumbling on for another couple of months with the threat of strike action during the summer recess. In those circumstances, no mechanism would be available other than the recall of Parliament to allow the Secretary of State to use his powers, which is clearly an unsatisfactory position.
The Minister may have made a slip of the tongue in that exchange. He said that if a settlement were reached, the powers would not be used. I am sure that he would want to clarify that, because he said earlier that the powers would not be used if a settlement were both reached and implemented. Surely he would want to retain the ability to use the powers.
I made that clear earlier and it is our wish to see a settlement reached and implemented. In responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West, I highlighted the fact that the settlement depended on pay and modernisation going hand in hand. That has applied for two and half years. The two have to be linked and implementation has to proceed to be fully honoured.
Human rights are, as I said, a matter of concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House, so it might be helpful if I explain the Government's thinking in some detail.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear from the outset that he believed that the Bill was compatible with the European convention on human rights. The Joint Committee on Human Rights carried out an initial examination of the Bill and its report recorded its provisional view that it is compatible with the convention. The Joint Committee did, however, raise concerns about the compatibility of the Bill with two conventions, neither of which is incorporated into UK law. The first is the European social charter, article 6 of which is designed to ensure the effectiveness of the right to collective bargaining. The Bill does nothing to interfere with the right of the fire service to engage in collective bargaining, and nothing to make it less effective. In fact, we all wish that it had been more effective than it has been over the last 12 months.
The Bill may not have that effect, but the regulations introduced under it may have. Clause 1(1)(a) makes it absolutely clear that regulations can determine pay and conditions, contrary to the outcome of negotiations.
As I was about to say, and as the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand, many of us wish that the collective bargaining procedures had been more effective. The dispute began more than a year ago when the claim was lodged. Sadly, despite frequent efforts to find ways of bringing the two sides together, securing a negotiated solution has so far proved unsuccessful. I hope, as does the whole House, that next week the Fire Brigades Union recall conference will agree to the latest offer of the employers—a good and generous offer and a good basis for ensuring a good future for the fire service and a sound settlement for firefighters. We hope that there will be no need to use the powers in the Bill. However, in the event of no agreement being reached, it cannot be right to allow the position to continue. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge repeatedly emphasised, the public could be put at risk. In those circumstances, it is right to ensure that effective action can be taken to safeguard the public.
I would draw attention to the fact that rights under the charter are not absolute. Article 31 permits some restrictions or limitations, if they are
"prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others or for the protection of public interest, national security, public health, or morals".
We believe that it is now necessary to draw a line under the dispute if the parties fail to bring it to an end through the normal processes of bargaining. Naturally, it is for the Committee to determine whether it agrees: that is the nature of democracy. We are satisfied that both the Bill and the order-making powers, if we are forced to use them, are compatible with the charter.
The Minister said that, even if a settlement were reached, the Bill and its powers of direction would remain necessary in order to bring it into effect. He now says that he hopes that the Bill will not be used at all. I may be stupid, but will the Minister clarify which is the correct version? It is an important point.
At the risk of going over the ground again, I hope that I have made it clear that we believe that the Bill is necessary to oversee the period during which the implementation of the settlement takes place. On the employers' offer, the settlement will cover a two and a half year period. The Bill is necessary to ensure implementation because pay and modernisation are inextricably linked as part of the settlement. That is why the powers are necessary, but we have repeatedly said that it is not our intention to invoke them or use them, assuming that agreement is reached and implemented.
When we talk about the employer, we need to be clear that we do not mean central Government or an employer, but a number of employers. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if a fire authority failed to settle with its employees, for whatever reason, the Government would not seek to impose a deal retrospectively on that authority? Otherwise, this process looks like the Government telling each fire authority what it should do with every one of its conditions of employment, and that is not desirable.
No one would regard a settlement as satisfactory if it applied only to some areas of the country and not to others. People expect a properly functioning fire service in every part of the country, and it is our objective to achieve a national settlement. All the parties, including the employers—the local authority and other fire authority employers—the union and the Government, want an agreement that applies nationally. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that circumstances could arise—I have outlined them in response to earlier questions—in a continuing dispute, in which certain authorities were more helpful in making equipment available to others to protect the public interest. In such cases, it might be necessary to use the powers selectively to protect the public. That is why the powers in the Bill may be applied generally or to particular authorities.
The implication of that is that we will have a national settlement for not only pay, but all conditions. If that is the case, we should be honest and open about it, and we should tell local authorities that their room for manoeuvre will be considerably constrained, regardless of the passage of the Bill. That appears to be the direction in which the Government are going, and it may be the right direction, but we should put it on record.
My understanding is that all parties, including the local authority employers and the FBU, want a national agreement. They do not want regional bargaining or negotiation with individual fire authorities. It is in everybody's interest that we reach an agreed national settlement.
If we are to assist in the resolution of the dispute next week, it is important to achieve clarity in our debate. The union and the employers want a national settlement that applies to all parties, but the Burchill proposals allow for local resolution of individual issues, especially conditions and operational matters. That is the key message. Our concern is that the legislation offers a vista of detailed interference at local level if the agreement is not implemented. We need to assure the union and the employers that that is not the process that the Government envisage.
I agree that everyone involved agrees that we seek a national settlement, not a fragmentation. The proposals that Professor Burchill made a couple of weeks ago are not on the table and do not form part of the current offer made by the employers and recommended by the FBU executive. Of course there will be a role for individual fire authorities in the future in assessing the appropriate way to respond to the needs of their areas. Indeed, they are preparing integrated risk management plans to ensure that they are well organised to meet those needs. However, as far as pay bargaining is concerned, the objective of all sides has been a national settlement. That remains the case, and the Government do not wish to do anything to prevent that from happening. We want to see a national settlement.
The Minister said that the Bill was compatible with article 6 of the European social charter because it would address a risk to public safety. However, the Bill makes no mention of public safety and it will confer a power that has nothing to do with a risk to public safety. That is not what the Minister intends, but will he make it clear that he will use the powers only in the case of a direct risk to public safety? If so, we will have no concerns about article 6.
The theme that has been repeated time and again in the debate is the inevitable risk to the public of a continued or repeated incidence of industrial action in the fire service. If firefighters withdraw their labour, the public are put at risk, especially if the military resources, which have responded magnificently in the past, are seriously stretched and we cannot deploy comparable numbers. In that situation, the public would be at risk and the provisions of article 31 make it clear that any use of the powers would not be incompatible with the charter.
The Bill does not say that the powers will be used only in the event of strike action. The powers could be used at any time, so I am giving the Minister the opportunity to say that he would use the powers only in cases of a threatened strike or actual strike action.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman had heard me say that repeatedly. If he has not, I repeat that it is not our intention to use the powers in the Bill if a negotiated settlement is properly implemented. If not, and there is an industrial dispute, there will be a clear risk to the public and, therefore, the permissive powers in article 31 would bite and there would be no conflict with the charter.
The second concern that the Joint Committee raised with me was about article 8 of the Labour Relations (Public Services) convention, known as ILO convention 151. The article requires that settlement of disputes about conditions of employment of public employees should
"be sought . . . through negotiation . . . or through independent and impartial machinery".
No one could argue that a settlement has not been sought through negotiation. We have done all that we can to encourage and facilitate that. The question is how long the fire service can go on seeking a settlement without finding one. Article 8 describes what should happen but does not define what to do when negotiation fails. That is what we are now seeking to address. I can therefore confirm—as I said on Second Reading—that in our view the provisions in the Bill are compatible with article 6 of the charter and article 8 of ILO convention 151. Requiring the publication of reports to that effect looks like just another obstacle put in place by Opposition Members. As we can give them the assurances that they seek now, there is no merit in delaying commencement of the Act.
The powers in the Bill have a specific purpose: to draw a line under the present dispute so that the two sides can start afresh. We are heartened by the progress that they have made, and we are sure that the whole House hopes for a positive outcome, but we must be prepared for all eventualities. In the event of a negotiated settlement not being reached, accepting any of these amendments would delay a resolution to the dispute. I have made it clear that the Government are happy to accept amendment No. 17, but I request that all other amendments be withdrawn.
This has been a very interesting debate, if somewhat lengthy. The Minister's remarks about the time scale for the introduction of new legislation following the publication of the White Paper were entirely plausible, and I accept what he said. I suspect that some Labour Members may not have realised that the Government's intention was that the Bill should act as a bridge to a piece of permanent legislation covering the same areas. However, I certainly anticipated that that would be the Government's intention, so I am happy to accept the two-year sunset provision that the Minister deems adequate.
It is amusing to think what the Minister's speech would have looked like if I had proposed a two-year sunset clause in amendment No. 35, and if Mr. Lloyd had proposed a period of 18 months in his amendment. No doubt the Minister would have found time in the legislative timetable for the House to deem an 18-month period to be adequate. However, I am very happy with the outcome. The Government have cleared the first of the three hurdles set by my right hon. Friend David Davis. I very much hope that we can continue to make progress in the same spirit, so that consideration of the Bill can be concluded with consensus on all sides.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 1, line 4, at end insert—
'(1A) (a) Before making an order under section 1(1) the Secretary of State shall conduct a postal ballot of all Fire Brigade members for the purpose of ascertaining their views in relation to any order to be made under section 1(1) or any related matters which appears to the Secretary of State to be relevant.
(b) The Secretary of State may direct any fire authority to supply him with such information as he may require to enable him to conduct a ballot under subsection 1(1A)(a).
(c) It shall be the duty of a fire authority to comply with a direction given under subsection 1(1A)(b).'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 33, in page 1, leave out lines 5 and 6.
No. 25, in page 1, line 6, at end insert—
'(1A) The Secretary of State may only make a order under section (1) above if an existing offer on pay and conditions made by relevant representatives of local fire authorities to the relevant representatives of fire brigade members has been voted upon in a secret postal ballot, in which all fire brigade members were sent a ballot paper, within the preceding three months.'.
No. 26, in page 1, line 6, at end insert—
'(1B) The conditions in section (1A) do not have to be met if the Secretary of State makes an order under (1)(a) to require fire brigade members to take part in a secret postal ballot organised by an appropriate independent body on an existing offer on pay and conditions made to them by relevant representatives of fire authorities.'.
No. 27, in page 1, line 16, at end insert—
'(2A) For the purposes of (1)(a) above, the Secretary of State can only fix or modify the conditions of service of fire brigade members if:
(i) the new or modified conditions of service follow the recommendations of an independent arbitration process;
(ii) the recommendations of such an independent arbitration process have been rejected either by relevant representatives of fire brigade member or by relevant representatives of fire authorities.'.
No. 9, in page 1, line 20, after 'body', insert 'for agreement'.
No. 10, in page 1, line 25, at end insert—
'(d) secure the agreement of the negotiating body to the proposals for an order.
(e) lay a report before Parliament on the views of the negotiating body on the proposal for an order'.
We now come to the second condition proposed by the Opposition. Amendment No. 32 would introduce an obligation to conduct a postal ballot, but it would leave the Secretary of State with wide discretion as to the ballot's subject matter, whether it were the proposed order under clause 1(1) or any matter that appears to the Secretary of State to be relevant. Clearly, the intention is to give the Secretary of State the opportunity to put to FBU members in a postal ballot an offer that has been made and debated. If the amendment were to apply today, for example, the ballot would cover the employers' draft offer that is to be considered by the recalled FBU conference on
It would be simpler, and preferable, if the principal unions involved were to organise proper postal ballots of all their members. However, amendment No. 32 would give the Secretary of State the power to deal with the situation where the unions do not organise such ballots.
I thought very carefully about the wording of the amendment, and about whether the Secretary of State might need powers to require a third party such as a trade union, for example, to deliver information to him and thus enable him to hold such a ballot. I concluded that the fire authorities, being public statutory bodies, have control of all the information that he could need to conduct a ballot. The amendment is therefore drafted to require fire authorities to deliver information to him and places an obligation on them to comply with such a requirement. In that way, the Secretary of State can get the data that he needs to conduct a postal ballot without involving the unions. It thus avoids the need for penalties for non-compliance, and all the hullabaloo that would follow.
In practice, of course, I would expect the Secretary of State to contract an external organisation to conduct a ballot. He might even agree that a trade union should conduct the ballot, or he might look to a third-party body such as the Electoral Reform Society.
Amendment No. 33 is a drafting amendment that relates to matters dealt with in the previous group of amendments. I do not intend to say anything about it.
I tabled amendment No. 32 because I am not convinced that the approach taken by Liberal Democrat Members with amendments Nos. 25 and 26 would work. Amendment No. 25 would not give the Secretary of State the power to make the order that amendment No. 26 refers to. I accept entirely that the intention behind that amendment is similar to that which underlies amendment No. 32, but amendment No. 32 is not a probing amendment. I hope that the Government will be able to accept it, so it was necessary to put it in a technically satisfactory form. Even so, I am very much on the same page as Matthew Green and his colleagues.
I understand that the Government also support the idea of a ballot of all fire brigade members to test any offer that might be on the table before a settlement is imposed. Certainly, the remarks made by the Minister in his winding-up speech on Second Reading suggest that he is sympathetic to the idea. Hon. Members of all parties in this House, and people outside the House, would look askance if we did not seek to ensure that all relevant employees were given a proper chance to express their views on any negotiated settlement before we concluded that such a settlement was impossible and proceeded to allow the Secretary of State to impose his own settlement.
Two agreements have been approved by the employers, the Government and the union's executive. One agreement was rejected, through the conference, by the union membership, and the other is to be tested on
The Government are seeking to change things, but I suspect that most people would acknowledge that the fire service, although not unique, is at the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to macho workplace environments. There will certainly be what might be described as peer pressure in the environment in which the ballots take place, and others might even describe it as intimidation. However, there is at least a hope that a postal ballot of all fire brigade members would allow more sober judgments to be made.
Of course, I repeat that we all hope that sober judgment will prevail on
Perhaps it would be useful to recap the present state of the dispute, as that is essentially the background to the postal ballot proposal. Pay claims of 40 per cent. for firefighters and 50 per cent. for control room staff remain on the table, without any commitment to reform of working practices. The employers tabled a final offer that was rejected in April after having been recommended to the work force by the FBU executive. The Government rejected the intervention by Professor Burchill on the ground that it would add costs of £100 million to the proposed settlement by watering down the link between modernisation and increased pay. Following that, the employers tabled a revised final offer. The FBU executive has again recommended to fire service personnel that the offer be accepted, and it has been approved by the Minister, on behalf of the Government. It will be voted on at a delegate conference on
Meanwhile the Government remain committed to the position that any settlement above inflation must be paid for through productivity: the modernisation agenda. The Government have stated repeatedly, and the Minister said again today, that they will not finance any of the proposed settlement. They will advance £30 million, to be repaid in future years, to deal with the cash-flow effects of funding a pay settlement immediately and then claw back savings through modernisation over time. The whole of the above-inflation element must be met by savings made through productivity gains.
In practical terms, if the revised final offer is agreed on
I do not want to talk down the chances of the conference, but we are considering a measure for use if
On Second Reading, the Minister made much of the cost of the Burchill proposals, due to the weakening of the link between pay and the reform of working conditions. However, the revised offer omits the key words from the beginning of the first paragraph that I have already quoted: it is
"a package agreement."
"depends on implementation of the entire package."
Those words made it clear that pay and modernisation are linked, but they have gone from the latest draft.
The previous version specified redeployment obligations. The section dealing with the duty system stated that there is:
"an obligation for employees to be based and deployed anywhere and on any duties appropriate to their competence, within the reasonable requirements of the fire authority."
Those words, too, are missing from the revised text, which has the new words
"Pre-arranged overtime will not be used to make up any planned shortfall in the overall staffing levels set out in the fire authority's risk management plan."
In that case, how is the fire authority to cover a staff shortfall to reach the level required by the integrated risk management plan?
The reference to the joint secretaries and the independent chair of the national joint council being available to assist in the event of any disputes on implementation of the agreement has also been removed from the latest text. There is thus no clear procedure for dealing with implementation disputes.
I know that the Minister scrutinised the text in detail before it was agreed by the employers and the FBU executive, but all those points seem to weaken the link between working practice reform and increased pay. They weaken the commitment to reform of working practices and, thus, on the Minister's logic as applied to the Burchill proposals, they reduce the likelihood of our being able swiftly and smoothly to implement the working practice reforms and harvest the savings.
Given the Minister's comments about Burchill and his costing of the proposals at £100 million, can he quantify his Department's assessment of the extra cost of the revised final offer as opposed to the former final offer? In other words, what substance does he accord those significant changes of wording that I cited?
Will the Minister answer a question that I put to the Deputy Prime Minister on Second Reading? After the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the proposals were not an attack on firefighters' second jobs, I asked whether he could give an assurance that no individual firefighter would be forced to move to a different shift pattern. From my discussions with ordinary firefighters—not union activists—that seems to be the key issue; people do not want their daily life to be disrupted by fiat, but to have a say in the matter.
I asked the Deputy Prime Minister if he could give such a commitment and he replied:
"This is an important point, and I shall come exactly to it if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to complete my speech."
Needless to say, the Deputy Prime Minister never came "exactly to it" and I should be most grateful if the Minister could throw any light on the question.
On a related point, will the Minister address another of my concerns about the Deputy Prime Minister's statement on Second Reading, as it is relevant to the current package of proposals? The Deputy Prime Minister said:
"Between now and 2005-06, the fire service will lose 1,500 firefighters through compulsory retirement at age 55."—[Hansard, 8 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 863-65.]
Wearing another of my hats, I am conscious of the article 13 directive and of the preparations being made by the Minister's colleagues to bring into UK law the requirement to remove discrimination on various grounds, including age. Is the Government's policy that the new arrangements in the fire service will preserve compulsory retirement from all posts at the age of 55? Is their assessment that such a policy will not fall foul of their proposals for the implementation of article 13 in respect of age discrimination? If compulsory retirement at age 55 is to go, the Deputy Prime Minister's assumption about natural wastage will be wrong.
All those important issues relate to the offer on the table, which will, I hope, be accepted on
I am disappointed to see the Minister shaking his head. I hope that he has an extremely good reason for not accepting such a sensible amendment. If it were accepted, I should expect the current offer to be voted on in the sad event that agreement could not be reached on
I shall touch briefly on the Liberal Democrat amendment, No. 27. On Second Reading, Mr. Davey intervened on me to agree that the Deputy Prime Minister's powers under the Bill appeared to ignore the integrated risk management programmes. The right hon. Gentleman's powers are not constrained so that they can be used in a way that is supportive of the integrated risk management programmes adopted by individual fire authorities. However, amendment No. 27 also fails to address that point.
If the integrated risk management programme requires that conditions of service change, what is the relevance of arbitration? Clearly, delivery of the integrated risk management programme will require a change in those conditions of service. Arbitration can be used to settle pay—the compensation required to work under different conditions. That is a perfectly legitimate consideration, but to subject changes to other conditions to arbitration could undermine the integrated risk management programme, and I do not think that the hon. Member for Ludlow really wants to do that. Perhaps he is considering pay only. I look forward to him clarifying that point.
Finally, I turn briefly to amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 15, which were tabled by the awkward squad on the Government Back Benches. Their effect would be disastrous and give the FBU a veto over any order that the Deputy Prime Minister might make under the powers granted to him by the Bill. If those who tabled the amendments are successful, we can be assured that our consideration today would be entirely wasted. The Bill would have no purpose whatever. The amendments would effectively allow the FBU to usurp Parliament's role, and that probably neatly encapsulates the bizarre and often offensive view that John McDonnell takes of the world. These are wrecking amendments and not worthy of consideration in the House. If those Members want to wreck the Bill, the correct course of action for them is to vote against Third Reading, not to table such amendments. We certainly will not support them.
This group of amendments is particularly important because it addresses the issue of postal ballots. As Mr. Hammond has suggested, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives come to the issue from broadly the same direction. He said that our amendments would not work, but I suspect that the wording of the Conservatives' amendments probably would not work either. The difficulty is that amendment No. 32 does not say that the ballot would decide whether FBU members have accepted the conditions. It says only that it would "ascertain their views". Therefore, it appears to be more a consultation than a ballot, and there is concern about the way in which it would be carried out.
If the Minister cannot accept Conservative amendment No. 32 and our amendments Nos. 25 and 26, I hope that he will say that the Government can find a way of inserting similar provisions into the Bill. Because of the rush and the guillotine motion, the opportunity for the Government to do that on Report will be limited. However, the Bill has to go to another place and I hope that the Government will consider tabling an amendment there.
Two issues of concern arise from what happened when the FBU executive accepted a settlement and it was rejected by a conference. The first was outlined by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. There is the potential for peer pressure to be exerted at a fire station when a show of hands mandates the person going to the conference.
The second concern is that a mandatory system can lead to the same problems that were faced in the last American presidential elections when fewer people voted for the current American President than voted for the Democrat candidate. That happened because people voted in areas for a mandated delegated to take a bloc vote forward. Under a mandatory system, even if secret ballots were held in fire stations, a majority of FBU members might want to accept a deal but the minority might be able to ensure that there were enough mandated votes to defeat them.
I have just examined the figures, and I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman needs to go as far as the United States. If he looks at his general election result, he will find that more people voted against him than for him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that, but it is probably the case for many hon. Members. However, there is a slight difference. We are the representatives not the mandated delegates of our constituencies. My point about the American election was that, although the people from the individual states are technically representatives, they are to all intents and purposes mandated.
The key point is that a secret postal ballot of all members would ascertain the view of the majority of FBU members. I have spoken to FBU members in Shropshire, and I am certain that a majority of them would have accepted the previous settlement. Indeed, many of us suspect that that is true across the country. A postal ballot would ensure that, instead of the Government imposition of a settlement, all the FBU's members would have an opportunity to decide whether to accept it. That must be preferable to the Secretary of State imposing a settlement.
Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 may be technically defective but I suspect that Conservative amendment No. 32 is, too. We do not have the Minister's access to the skills of the parliamentary draftsmen, but I hope that he will accept that we have a strong point and that he will be willing to table amendments at a later stage to satisfy our demands. If he does, many of our overall concerns about the Bill will be removed.
On amendment No. 27, I take on board what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said. It was our thinking that the provisions in the amendment should apply primarily to pay. Although the amendment may not be technically perfect, its intention is to ensure that the Secretary of State could modify the conditions of service only following the recommendations of an independent arbitration process. Clearly, as the hon. Gentleman attempted to elicit from the Minister, if a settlement from the Government is unfortunately needed, we hope that it would probably be the one on the table from the employers. It has gone through a process of arbitration, and the intention of the amendment is to ensure that that would happen in future.
I accept that the amendment may not be perfect—I do not pretend that it is—but I hope that the Minister will accept the need for any pay settlement to be tested. I am sure that that is his intention, but the problem is that the Bill will effectively give him the powers to impose whatever settlement he chooses. If the FBU reject the settlement, the Minister could in a mean-spirited mood suddenly say—I am sure that he and the Deputy Prime Minister would not do this— that the award will be 1 per cent. a year for the next three years. I am sure that that is not the Minister's intention, but the Bill would give him that power.
I am sure that that is not the Minister's intention However, he will leap to his feet to correct me if I am wrong when I say that I have the distinct impression that the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that, should the settlement currently on the table be rejected, it is likely that an imposed settlement would be less generous.
The hon. Gentleman may be right that that impression has been given. It is perhaps an attempt to force the union to accept the offer and we shall wait with interest to hear what the Minister says.
The Bill gives Ministers open-ended powers to impose a settlement as they choose. Liberal Democrat amendments Nos. 25 to 27 suggest the use of ballots, arbitration or both as an attempt to ensure that Ministers could not abuse the process. I am sure that the Minister would not abuse the powers but they could be abused to achieve retribution for a long and drawn out dispute. I am sure that he will be only too keen to tell us that that is not the Government's intention. If that is the case, we would feel a great deal happier if the Bill included a provision indicating that the Government would propose a settlement that had been through arbitration or put to a ballot. They are two further ways in which our concerns about the Bill could be mollified.
It has already been said that amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 15 are essentially wrecking amendments. They would take decision-making power away from everyone else and put that straight into the hands of the Fire Brigades Union. We have been in that position for at least a year and that is why the Government are doing what they are doing, although we would do things differently. The amendments would take us back to square one, meaning that we would have wasted all our time and effort on the Bill, so we shall not support them.
However imperfect the various amendments in the group are, I hope that the Minister will say in the spirit of understanding that the Government will table amendments that will satisfy some of our worries. If he does that, the remaining significant concerns that we have about the Bill will be largely satisfied.
I shall speak to amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 15, which are tabled in my name. However, I set the amendments to one side because Mr. Hammond referred to my offensive view of the world. I do not think that I have ever had a conversation with the hon. Gentleman—I offer him the opportunity to have that conservation now. If he was alluding to recent reports in The Sun, Daily Mail, or The Daily Telegraph, may I suggest that he reads my article in today's edition of The Guardian before he has a conversation with me, rather than making such allegations?
Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 were not designed to be wrecking amendments. If the Bill had become permanent legislation without the sunset clause that we have just agreed, it would have been the permanent negotiating machinery for the fire service in the future. The amendments would have introduced the requirement for a negotiated settlement before any order was brought forward—it is as simple as that. The amendments are no longer relevant because I hope that the implementation of the sunset clause will allow us to return to the normal negotiating process. Amendment No. 10 would have ensured that a report would be laid before Parliament on the views of the negotiating body on any proposal for an order. I thought that that would enhance the democratic process.
I do not understand why amendment No. 15 is offensive. It would ensure only that the organisation that represented the workers in the industry would be the organisation representing the majority of the workers.
If that is the case, it is due to inaccurate drafting. The drafting was undertaken with the advice of the drafting Clerk. The word "majority" is meant to refer to the employees' overall representation—the majority union. There may well be a printing error. The words "some or all" in clause 2 will allow employees to be represented by a minority organisation. The amendment would ensure that the employees, at least, would be represented by the majority membership organisation. I cannot understand why that is offensive or undemocratic in any way.
We have had an interesting debate that was enlivened by an interchange between Matthew Green and Mr. Hammond. The hon. Member for Ludlow referred to people who were elected by a minority of votes cast and the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge acutely and cruelly reminded him that he had been elected by a minority—the majority of people had voted against him. I did a little research and I can tell the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that he is in the same position, because the majority of electors in his constituency voted against him. I am saying that from a fairly solid position because I know that he cannot say the same about me.
As the Minister has done his research so well, will he share with the Committee the size of the majorities that voted against the hon. Member for Ludlow and me?
I shall not go into enormous detail because I fear that I will be out of order, but I concede that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge secured 47 per cent. of the electorate in his constituency, which was a higher percentage than that secured by the hon. Member for Ludlow but a lesser percentage than the 60 per cent. secured by Mr. Raynsford.
It has been made clear that the amendments address two separate issues: the role of secret ballots and the steps that it is reasonable for the Secretary of State to take before using the powers that the Bill will confer on him. I shall address the issues in turn.
We believe that secret ballots are a fundamental part of good industrial relations. Only industrial action that has the support of a ballot is protected under trade union legislation. It is well known that the Fire Brigades Union held a secret ballot before it embarked on the dispute in which a large majority of its members voted in favour of action. However, the union did not hold a ballot on whether to accept a particular offer, but on whether to take strike action. I do not hold that against the union because it was in line with section 229 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which requires that a ballot should contain a question about strike action or industrial action short of a strike.
The FBU has not balloted its members about any of the latest offers made by the employers. We should bear it in mind that the employers' offer at the time the ballot was held was only 4 per cent. over one year. The employers more recently offered 16 per cent. over two and a half years. We have repeatedly made clear our view that the FBU should put the employers' latest offer to a secret ballot of its members so that ordinary firefighters have the opportunity to make up their minds in private. The kind of collective meetings that are held to gauge opinion do not guarantee the fundamental principle of democracy that people should be able to express their view in a secret ballot. However, we have no plans to legislate to require the FBU to hold a secret ballot. Such an approach would mean treating the FBU differently from every other trade union, and there is no logical reason for doing that.
I am well aware of that and I shall come on to the problems highlighted by that approach and the problems implicit in the ballot proposals made by the hon. Member for Ludlow.
Let me address the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge first. Amendment No. 25 would mean that the Secretary of State could make an order only if a secret ballot of all fire brigade members on an employers' offer had been held in the previous three months. One problem with that is that there is no mechanism for a secret ballot of all fire brigade members. The FBU could ballot all its members, but not those who are members of other unions or of none.
I apologise unreservedly. I have confused the order of the amendments because amendment No. 25 comes before amendment No. 32.
The problem with the Liberal Democrat proposal is that there is no mechanism by which a ballot of all members could be held. Other unions are involved and they could ballot their members, but they are not party to the negotiating body. Whether that is right or not is a different matter, but that is the situation and strictly speaking no offer can be made to them by the employers. It is not easy to understand how they could be asked to express a view when they are not party to an offer.
Those unions may not be party to the negotiations, but they will receive the benefits or otherwise of the settlement that is either negotiated or not, and it is right that they should be balloted as well. The amendment might not provide for how that ballot should be carried out, but it is not impossible for the Secretary of State to get the names and addresses of those people who work in the fire brigade.
There may be a perfectly good justification, as an academic exercise, to test the views of all the people who work in the fire service, including those who are members of other unions such as the GMB, Unison, the National Association of Fire Officers and the Retained Firefighters Union, but that is not relevant to the negotiating procedure. We have said throughout the debate that we hope for a satisfactory outcome to the negotiations that have been going on for more than a year to resolve the dispute. The amendment would not help to resolve the dispute through the agreed negotiating procedure. Perhaps the procedure is not satisfactory and contains inequities that the hon. Gentleman might want to change, but we have to deal with the existing machinery.
I suspect that the Minister will apply the same criticism to my amendment. I recognise that what he is saying is true, but as far as I am concerned the purpose of the ballot is twofold: to test opinion and to make that opinion widely known before the Secretary of State intervenes with his leaden-booted power to impose a settlement, and to create an environment in which the Secretary of State's own proposed solution can be given legitimacy. If the vast majority of members of fire brigades accept a settlement, the Secretary of State would have a good basis on which to impose it. The militants might rail against that, but the great majority of people in the country would see it as fair and reasonable.
I shall come in a moment to the procedures that we will adopt. They will ensure that the Secretary of State seeks evidence of opinion before imposing a solution. There will be no question of a "leaden-booted" solution without consultation and an attempt to gain a full understanding of the views of those involved in the fire service.
Will the Minister acknowledge that the problem with the existing negotiating method is that firefighters are being asked to agree to a pay settlement that is linked to changes in their conditions of service? As those will arise from the risk review, they are as yet unknown. The firefighters do not know what they are being asked to agree to, which is why we need a separate arrangement for them to be consulted in this instance.
I agree that there are uncertainties. That is one reason why individual firefighters may have been nervous about accepting the generous 16 per cent. offer on the table. Compared with what most other public sector workers are being offered, that is a good deal. However, I accept that uncertainty exists. In my judgment, it has been a major cause of alarm for many firefighters. That is why the employers' latest offer makes a number of changes to the text. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge mentioned those. They have been proposed to deal with the anxieties and concerns felt by many firefighters.
The introduction of the new arrangements following integrated risk management plans is likely to give rise to changes, but it is our understanding that the majority of firefighters will continue to operate the same shift system. The numbers who might be asked to move to a different shift system will be relatively small. That should be containable on a voluntary basis. In any case, different shift systems will be attractive to firefighters who do not find the present shift system wholly conducive to family life, for example. There are alternatives. It will be up to individual fire authorities to explore those, but it is our understanding that that is compatible with a consensual way forward that does not impose unreasonable changes or prevent firefighters from operating a similar shift system.
One of the major concerns is that the watches of firefighters who work closely together and know one another well will be broken up. They know their colleagues' strengths and weaknesses and how they will react in life-endangering situations. Similarly, leading firefighters who are managing a fire know the strengths and weaknesses of the members of the watches to whom they are giving instructions. There is a concern that operational efficiency could be jeopardised by people working together at random. If they are not used to working together, they will not be as efficient or effective as the established watches.
I hear what the hon. Lady says and I know that some firefighters are concerned about that, but many fire stations already have mixed crewing whereby a full-time crew and a retained crew operate from the same station. The flexibility that allows those arrangements will often ensure a more effective response in a cost-effective way. It will be for each fire authority, under the integrated risk management plan process, to explore how it can best meet the needs of its area to provide the most effective service. That is what we are about. We are interested in safety and in ensuring the most effective response to the risks of fire. We want to achieve that in a more cost-effective way than often applies at the moment, because constant crewing can result in inefficiencies.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge asked whether the changes to the text on overtime would make it impossible for employers to make the savings that had been envisaged. That is a classic example of one of the changes that was designed to allay anxieties. It was thought that firefighters might assume that fire authorities or chief fire officers would reduce the numbers of employed firefighters and force up hours through overtime to compensate. That is not the intention. The objective is to allow extra flexibility. For example, if gaps are caused by sickness or other absences, that could be covered by overtime, but it should not justify reducing establishments arbitrarily to put them below the level that would be regarded as appropriate to provide proper fire cover.
Flexibility is very much the objective. That must be understood widely. It is in all our interests that we have the most effective fire service possible. No one wants the fire service damaged by change. Modernisation is not about reducing the quality of service or putting the public at risk. On the contrary: it is about ensuring a more effective response that accepts the need to do more on prevention while ensuring the continuation of a highly effective responsive service when fires occur.
One of the things that causes me the greatest alarm and concern is evidence of the growing number of fires that could have been prevented. There is a serious upward trend in incidents of arson, and more effective action is necessary to tackle that. There is still an extremely high number of false alarms: crews are dispatched for no good purpose because of malfunctioning alarms and other such incidents. Again, more effective action must be taken to ensure that people can concentrate on the important job of preventing fires and tackling them where they occur. That is what modernisation is about.
Those are decisions that must be taken in the light of local circumstances, and that is what integrated risk management plans are about. The employers' aim is to ensure that that is better understood by firefighters, who have, in part by misinformation that has been put about, been led to believe that the proposals are a serious threat to their future, to their patterns of work and to the safety of the public.
The Minister says that overtime would not be used routinely. I am confused, because the Deputy Prime Minister has previously said in the House that it is absurd that firefighters can have second jobs as cab drivers, gardeners or decorators, but that they cannot when off duty deploy their skills as firefighters in retained duty. I thought that the Deputy Prime Minister was advocating encouraging firefighters to deploy as much time as they want to for the benefit of the fire service. Now, the offer appears to impose a limit on the amount of overtime.
That is not the case. There is something curious about the FBU having regarded it as appropriate for firefighters, if they wish, to work in their spare time as taxi drivers, decorators or whatever, but not to work as firefighters, either doing overtime at their own fire station, or acting as retained firefighters in another area, perhaps the one in which they live. The option under discussion will allow greater flexibility and ensure a more effective and more cost-effective service, but it is not designed artificially to depress the number of firefighters employed regularly. It may well be that it will result in savings and in reductions to the establishment being possible, because the establishment may artificially be higher than it needs to be because of the current ban on overtime; but there is a difference between that and deliberately depressing numbers through excessive use of overtime.
But how can the firefighters who want to give up their second job outside and to deploy themselves for the benefit of the fire service do so, given that the draft text states, at paragraph 3.8, that employees will be free to undertake pre-arranged overtime at premium rates of pay for no more than 24 hours per month?
Clearly, it is not sensible for firefighters to work a full-time job as well as a long period of overtime—more than 24 hours a month. Safety is an issue. The proposal is about allowing greater flexibility than comes from making overtime impossible while rightly respecting the concerns of firefighters, their union and chief fire officers that firefighters should not be put in a position where they are exhausted by working excessive overtime. These are practical, sensible, common-sense arrangements that are designed to ensure a better fire service, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that.
Amendment No. 26 provides an alternative to amendment No. 25, perhaps because the hon. Member for Ludlow realised that amendment No. 25 was not a practical proposition. Under amendment No. 26, the Secretary of State may make an order requiring a secret postal ballot of all fire brigade members about an existing offer, organised independently. Similarly, amendment No. 32 suggests that the Secretary of State should conduct a postal ballot on his own proposals to make an order, rather than on an offer by the employers.
The difficulty that I have with the amendments is that what is proposed would take time without getting anywhere. Under the normal process of negotiation, employers and unions discuss; they reach an agreement that the negotiators think acceptable, which is put to their members for endorsement. They may, in some cases, use a secret ballot as part of that process. The powers in the Bill are not designed to deal with those circumstances. They are designed to deal with the different and exceptional situation in which the normal process has broken down, not to enable the whole thing to be rerun by the Government.
Anyway, it is not clear what we would do with the results of a ballot. If it were a ballot about an offer made by the employers and the offer had been rejected, we would not necessarily impose it. An offer linking pay rises to changes in working practices, like the one on the table now, is designed to work with the agreement of both sides. I am sure that hon. Members accept that what can be achieved by agreement between two parties acting in good faith is often different from what can be achieved by imposition. If no agreement is reached by the negotiating body, it does not follow that we would or could simply impose the same deal as the employers put forward. If we have to use the powers, we must be able to act decisively on the basis of our own judgment.
That does not mean that we would act unreasonably. The Bill as it stands requires the Secretary of State to consult the negotiating body—that is, the employers and the FBU—before he makes an order. He must give them at least 21 days to comment on his proposals, then consider any comments they make. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said on Second Reading that he would also consult the statutory advisers, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. That body, which is chaired by the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie, includes a number of organisations and trade unions that are not on the negotiating body. That is a way of engaging some of the other groups that would not otherwise be involved in the current negotiating procedures. We have made it clear that we would not use the powers arbitrarily. They are there to enable us to act decisively, but after consultation with those affected. That must be the right approach.
Amendment No. 27 appears to be designed as a hurdle to be jumped before an order setting or modifying conditions of service can be made—another hurdle that does nothing to help to create an effective fire service.
The Minister describes the amendment as a hurdle, but all our amendments are attempts to ensure that if the Secretary of State imposes a settlement, he does so with at least some indication that a fair number of fire brigade members will support it. The Secretary of State can impose a settlement, but that does not mean that fire brigade members will turn up for work. That is why the amendments are important.
We discussed that issue at some length on Second Reading. We have made it clear that the route followed in the Bill is designed to cope with the current situation. We are acting reluctantly—these are not powers that we want to use, but we have to have them in case a settlement is not reached through the normal negotiating procedures. We hope that one will be reached, but the Bill will be there as a stop-gap. If a settlement is not reached, we have to be able to act decisively. The hurdles erected by the amendments would make that impossible.
Under amendment No. 27, an order would have to follow the recommendations of an independent arbitration process. The implication of that is that the Secretary of State could not impose changes proposed by the employers—or by a union—unless they had been recommended by an independent arbitrator, let alone changes that he thinks are appropriate. That goes against the whole thrust of the Bill, which is that if the two parties to the negotiation cannot agree, the Secretary of State with responsibility for the provision of an effective fire service and for public funding of that service should step in and make a settlement.
That requires some hard decisions, and those decisions cannot and should not simply be handed over to a third party. The issues that have caused the most difficulty in the current dispute include how the fire service should move from prescribed national fire cover standards to local risk-based approaches to fire cover, and what the implications are for staff—the very points made by Angela Watkinson. Those are serious issues requiring serious answers, but they are not necessarily issues capable of arbitration.
In the end, one cannot arbitrate about policy questions, such as the right basis for fire cover. One can arbitrate about some of the implications, especially for pay, but it is hard to see how even the best independent arbitrator would be better placed to make informed judgments about issues such as the appropriate level of fire cover, and how new shift systems might be introduced in a way that achieves both a more effective and safer service and cost savings, than a professional who is expert in the field. It is difficult to envisage how that could happen.
I understand the purpose behind the amendment, but it is not realistic. We do not believe that it would work. The Government must have policy responsibility rather than handing these matters over to somebody else. Even if an arbitrator were involved, there is another hurdle in the amendment. The recommendations have to be rejected by one side or the other before the Secretary of State can make an order. The history of the current dispute shows that things can drag on for long periods without a clear outcome. After all, the FBU executive first felt able to recommend to its members an offer from the employers on
I am equally unable to accept amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 15, which were tabled by my hon. Friend John McDonnell. Amendment No. 9 would mean that the Secretary of State could only fix or modify firefighters' conditions of service with the agreement of the negotiating body.
Our strategy is bringing forward the Bill is to draw a line under the dispute by making a fair and reasonable award. We are doing this in a situation where the negotiating body—the national joint council—has so far failed to reach agreement for nearly a year. Against that background, it is hardly likely that both sides of the NJC would be able to agree on the terms of any settlement proposed by Ministers.
As we have made repeatedly clear, we have no wish to use the powers that the Bill would confer. There is still time for the two sides to reach agreement, and we very much hope that they will. We welcome the progress that has been made over the recent period. That has been made in the knowledge that if there is no agreement the Government will have the powers to impose a settlement. It is not for me to say how much the two sides may have been influenced by the knowledge that we are bringing forward the Bill, but it is clearly one factor. Accepting my hon. Friend's amendments on this point would therefore be counterproductive.
Amendment No. 10 would also require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a report of the views of the negotiating body on his proposals to make an order. That seems to me unnecessary. It would clearly be open to the negotiating body to make public its views, but that should be a matter for that body. The Secretary of State, at all events, will have to justify his decision to the House if the order is subject to challenge. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made it clear that in the event of any order being made to impose pay and conditions, he would ensure that it was challenged. There would be a full opportunity for the House to question the Secretary of State on this issue if the matter were ever to come to that stage.
Amendment No. 15 would mean that the negotiating body would need to be constituted so that it represented the "majority" of fire authorities, rather than "some or all", as the Bill is drafted.
I understand that my hon. Friend has said that that was not his intention. There has been a drafting error. I understand that he was seeking a framework that would refer to a majority of employees in the service. I hope that he will accept that the arrangement that we are putting in place will ensure that the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the negotiating body is constituted in accordance with appropriate arrangements for the negotiation of conditions of service of fire brigade members. That is provided by the provisions in clause 2(2)(b). I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that that effectively gives him the object that he is seeking. I ask him and other hon. Members to withdraw their amendments, which in our view are not necessary.
"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." —[Hansard, 8 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 920.]
In good faith we have proposed a set of amendments that would ensure that the grass roots, the fire brigades' members, were properly consulted and their opinion tested before the draconian powers that the Secretary of State is taking were implemented and acted upon.
I think that the Minister has been slightly disingenuous in his response. He said that he would show why amendment No. 32 was technically defective and he has not. He has said that the amendment did not create the possibility of putting an existing offer on the table to a ballot. It does, by allowing the Secretary of State to consult fire brigades' members on any other matter that he considers relevant. I do not think that the Minister has made a case against the secret ballot test. We have made it clear that that is one of our conditions for being able to support this draconian emergency legislation, and I am disappointed that the Minister has not risen to that challenge. I will therefore be urging my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for amendment No. 32.
The First Deputy Chairman:
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 4, in line 6, leave out 'property or'.
No. 5, in line 9, leave out 'or disposal'.
No. 6, in page 2, line 2, leave out 'property or'.
No. 11, in line 5, leave out 'as he thinks fit' and insert
'including the Members of Parliament and local authorities for the area served by the facilities'.
No. 12, in line 5, at end insert
'and lay before Parliament a report on these consultations'.
No. 7, in page 3, line 1, leave out 'property or'.
No. 8, in page 3, leave out line 3.
I shall be fairly brief in speaking to the amendments. I tabled them because there is some anxiety that the Secretary of State is taking significant powers of detail. In particular, the provision on disposal of property is a remarkable power of detail if it is to involve the wholesale closure and sale of individual fire stations. The amendments give the Government the opportunity to reassure the general public that the power will not be used extensively for the closure of fire stations.
In addition, I have tabled amendments that would reinforce the rights of individual Members of Parliament and local authorities to be consulted on any local changes in practice involving the dispersal of facilities in an area. I accept that section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 has been amended in previous legislation, but it would be helpful for the Government to reassure Members and others that, where the powers are to be exercised, there will be consultation with Members of Parliament and local authorities. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State can consult whomsoever he thinks fit, but I think that we need to tighten the legislation to ensure that Members of Parliament have a role in their area.
In addition, I suggest that when the consultations have taken place, a report should be laid before Parliament. I am not proposing that there should be reports on all individual consultations about minor changes of practice, but I believe that at least some form of conglomerate report should be made regularly, so that we can have an overview of the changes of practice that are taking place in our name as a result of the legislation. Such a report could be made annually or when the Secretary of State sees fit, but it would give the House an opportunity to assess the implications of the Bill and how effective the changes are locally in practice, especially with regard to the introduction of risk management.
The amendments on property are probing amendments that seek to tease out the Government's intentions with regard to the specific interventions that they envisage on the disposal and dispersal of property. It would be helpful if the Minister enlightened and reassured us that the provision is not about the wholesale selling off of fire stations, that Members of Parliament and local authorities will have a distinctly direct consultative role in respect of any changes and that Parliament will have an overview.
I have a few questions for the Minister about the powers to direct property and assets, and I want to try to get some clarity about precisely what the Government have in mind.
Primarily, I want to clarify whether the purpose of the powers in clause 1(2) is to implement integrated risk management plans. If so, would it not have been better to include a specific reference on the face of the Bill? Such plans will be prepared after proper consultation. The Minister has already issued a circular setting out the consultation that he expects. If the powers set out in subsection (2) explicitly related to the implementation of adopted integrated risk management plans, it would be relatively easy to justify them, although the need for them would not be so clear. Perhaps the Minister has it in mind that some fire authorities may not have the bottle to implement their own integrated risk management plans and to make the necessary changes, and that they may need the Secretary of State to come along and stiffen their resolve by using his powers to impose the changes that their fully consulted on and properly adopted plans envisage.
That is one possible scenario, but it is equally credible to suggest that the powers will be intended primarily to direct the use of assets. In that regard, I take it that the word "disposal" has two possible meanings—the transferral of land ownership or simply making something available in the short term. For example, the provision could be used by the Secretary of State to prevent firefighters from having access to fire service buildings during a strike. It could be used to direct that appliances be made available to military firefighters or—perhaps this is not beyond the realms of possibility—private contractors undertaking a firefighting role in the absence of the regular firefighters.
It is very important that we understand precisely how the Minister envisages that the powers will be used. If he envisages that they will be used in different ways, the Committee must be clear about that. The three options, as I see them, are as follows. The powers may be used to implement approved integrated risk management plans. They may be used to implement change where a fire authority—let us take Avon at random—fails to propose a proper integrated risk management plan that the Secretary of State can endorse. Finally, they could be wholly related to contingency planning in the event of a strike.
If the Minister is going to tell us that the powers are to be used for the implementation of integrated risk management plans that have been subject to the proper procedure, the concerns addressed by amendments Nos. 10 and 11 will be dealt with, as the plans will have involved proper consultation. However, if he can at least envisage using the powers because of the failure to produce a plan, it will be perfectly logical to suggest that there should be a consultation process that parallels the consultation that would have taken place if a plan had been prepared and proposed.
My concern remains that the Government will face a major task and a genuine problem in convincing the public that changes that appear to be cuts, as they reduce the number of appliances, fire stations or firefighters, are risk-driven rather than cost-driven. Given the statements that have already been made and repeated today that any pay settlement has to be funded out of savings made through modernisation, I suggest to the Minister that it is very important that any rationalisation of assets imposed by ministerial order must be seen to have been subjected to the proper and rigorous process that is proposed with regard to the preparation of the integrated risk management plan. I have described at least one scenario involving long-term permanent change that could not happen without the introduction of a consultative procedure somewhat akin to those proposed by John McDonnell. The imposition of such changes without the consultation process envisaged in the circular would only increase the risk of public scepticism.
I should be grateful if the Minister would address specifically each of the three possible uses of the powers in relation to property and assets and explain whether those are uses that he intends and, in each case, how he intends to use them.
"As for whether the use of the facilities themselves will be necessary,"— this is, believe it or not, a direct quote—
"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."—[Hansard, 8 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 861.]
I have to confess that I have not the faintest idea what he meant. If the Minister can clarify the Government's position, as outlined in that statement by the Deputy Prime Minister, he will be doing the House a favour, and he is a better man than I am.
I rise to make a narrow point, on which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to allay my fears, concerning the possible disposal of assets. That always raises alarm in rural areas. Under the previous Conservative Government, we regularly had to run campaigns—we were a campaigning party—against proposed closures of rural retained stations. I am unclear as to how that would play in relation to the Bill.
I am even more mystified in that I was persuaded to support the changes to section 19 to the Local Government Bill on the basis that the Government were introducing sensible changes to the labyrinthine mechanism by which any changes in the disposal of assets—changing the location of stations and so on—should, instead of being left in the hands of the Secretary of State or his nominee, be decided locally. As a great believer in decentralisation, I thought that that was a good move. Such decisions should be made locally and the people who make them should be accountable locally. That was the right way to go about it. Yet the Bill seems to say something different and almost contradictory—that if and when a problem arose as regards the way in which pay and conditions were introduced nationally, the Secretary of State or his nominee could decide that it would be sensible, whether in terms of finances or the notion of integrated risk management, to close or move a particular station. We all know the type of reaction that that would cause locally. People in Painswick in my constituency have already run too many campaigns to save stations, and they certainly do not want to have to do so under a Labour Government.
Will the Minister confirm where these powers might be introduced, whether the Bill contradicts the Local Government Bill, and whether we will find that the White Paper clarifies the position? We need to know that local people will have a say in how a fire authority's management are able to exercise their powers, so that there is no confusion and we do not end up in a real mess over who is able to take the decision and where the blame lies.
I do not feel able to support the amendments, but they give us the opportunity to ask the Minister a series of questions.
My reading of the Bill was that the point of use and disposal is that in the event of industrial action the Secretary of State could make facilities available to the military or others. That should not be embarked on lightly, even in a dispute, but presumably we are reaching the stage where the Minister thinks that it may be necessary to have that power, or at least to have it in reserve. However, the word "disposal" has more than one meaning, so will he clarify exactly what it means in this context? The explanatory notes do not help to make that any clearer. They say:
"Examples of purposes for which this power might be useful are to provide joint control rooms".
Would that be during a dispute or permanently? We are not given an answer to that. In Shropshire, all of us, including the FBU, want a joint control room—only the Government are standing in our way.
Mr. Drew suggested that the Bill may give the Secretary of State the power suddenly to announce that he is closing half the rural retained fire stations in Ludlow. I hope that the Bill does not give the Secretary of State such a power, which I would resist at all costs. I do not believe that that is what the Minister is trying to achieve, and I hope that he will reassure us that the Bill is about the events and circumstances of an ongoing dispute and securing public safety during only the time of that dispute.
In any legal sense, the word "disposal" has to mean "to get rid of". The Bill refers to "use or disposal", not "use and disposal". That leads me to believe that it means the transfer of property, which, in this context, may mean the sell-off of rural stations, as the hon. Member for Stroud suggested. The clause must be read in conjunction with the repeal of section 19, which makes it all the more urgent and important. I have no hesitation whatever in supporting the amendments tabled by John McDonnell and others.
It is only right that there should be an understanding that rural stations are extremely important to communities. I shall give a brief example of that concern. About four months ago, I met the north Wales fire chief. I live in a very rural constituency where we rely heavily on the good men and women of the retained brigades, who do an excellent job. During our meeting, which took place during the dispute and was to do with pay settlements and a whole gamut of issues, I asked him about the future of rural fire stations. He said, "They're all right; they're quite secure." However, a few minutes later we talked about the following scenario. A small village has a retained brigade running the local fire station. Some 12 or 14 miles down the road, there is a full-time station. The chief fire officer told me that his concern was that several of the people who worked in the small retained station were not employed in their day jobs within five miles of the station. What I find amusing is that that station has been run in that way for the past 50 years without any incident whatsoever, giving an excellent service and being held in high regard.
That concern, however, reflects the way in which fire officers—particularly the more ambitious ones—are now thinking. It is, I am afraid, in line with the Government's thinking that we are going to see lots of the smaller stations close, and I believe honestly and sincerely that the Bill is here to ensure that that will be effected with the minimum of difficulty.
With regard to what Mr. Drew was saying earlier, closing a fire station is almost as bad for a community as closing a village school. People feel that it is their facility; it is run by and for local people, and the people who run it do a thankless job. I would like to see an increase in recruitment in the retained sector to secure the future. I am quite worried about this, having spoken to senior fire officers. It might well be that the senior fire officers in north Wales are thinking along these lines because they believe that there will be a shortfall in the funding for the pay settlement, and that when that funding is applied to the retained sector, the wage bill will, by definition, shoot up. They would therefore end up having to get rid of considerable numbers in the retained sector.
But if the money is not there to pay the retained firefighters, what is the obvious conclusion? The Government will not say that it was their fault; it will be the fault of the fire authority, of course, for not using the money wisely. The fire authority would then be forced to make cuts in due course. I hope that I am wrong, and if the Minister gets up in a few minutes' time to tell me that that is the case, I shall be pleased to hear it. That would cheer me up no end, along with my constituents and several other people in north Wales. I say that, having made those few sincerely held remarks.
The amendments are very useful, and we have had a useful debate on them. Reference was made earlier to the Deputy Prime Minister saying that fire stations were public property. Yes, they are public property, and they are very close to the hearts of people in rural communities. They provide a vital service, and the retained sector is extremely important in rural areas such as north Wales. I would like to see amendment No. 11 embellished by a reference to the need for consultation with Members of the National Assembly for Wales as well.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously a great thinker, and I stand corrected and slightly embarrassed by what he has just said.
This has been a useful debate. I hope that the Minister will explain why the word "disposal" appears after the word "use". I hope that he will also explain the distinction between the word "disposal" in clause 2(a) and the reference in clause 2(b) to the use by a fire authority of another fire authority's property or facilities. This tends to confirm what I am saying about the word "disposal". Will he tell the House in no uncertain terms that it is not meant to denote a disposal of an interest in land, because that is what I and many other hon. Members are concerned about?
Sadly for Opposition Members and, indeed, for my hon. Friend John McDonnell, the Government cannot accept these amendments. Some remove the Secretary of State's power to give directions to fire authorities about the use of property. Others would mean that directions could be made about the use of facilities but not about disposal. I will come some of the points raised on those issues in a moment. Two of the amendments would mean that the Secretary of State would be required to consult Members of Parliament and local authorities before making an order, and to lay before Parliament a report on those consultations.
Strike action undoubtedly poses a threat to public safety, so in the event of further strikes occurring, the Government need sufficient room for manoeuvre to direct fire authorities on how they should use their property and assets in a co-ordinated and concerted fashion, to the safest effect and to support any emergency fire cover provided by the armed forces. The Government also need the powers in the event that the modernisation of the fire service is obstructed, especially in the absence of any negotiated agreement, so that assets and property can be utilised in a sensible manner. There has been much misunderstanding—perhaps scaremongering in some quarters—and uninformed speculation about the use to which the powers may be put. Our preference is not to have to use them at all, either in response to a strike or as part of the modernisation process. Partnership is clearly the better way forward, but, given the history of the last 12 months in particular, we must safeguard and reserve the right to act.
Furthermore, any directions that the Secretary of State makes will be made to protect and enhance public safety. We do not have an agenda to do anything that would be contrary to that objective—far from it. Anything that we do will be driven by our motivation to protect citizens and enhance public safety. The provisions are certainly not part of some wider wild asset-stripping fire station closure plan being held secretly in a drawer somewhere in the Department, as my hon. Friend Matthew Green and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) speculated. That is definitely not envisaged at all.
That point was raised by Mr. Hammond, as well as by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, particularly in respect of whether the word referred to the selling of assets, or whether it simply meant the transfer of a piece of equipment from one fire authority to another in certain circumstances. We have a deliberately wide definition of the term because in these circumstances we need a piece of legislation that can cope with a wide variety of eventualities. I would not, therefore, wish to be too prescriptive or to rule out one particular component or another.
The Minister must be honest about this. "Disposal" in this context includes the transfer by sale of land, and it has to. He, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions have all said that the pay settlement on offer will have to be paid for by savings through modernisation. That means reducing the number of fire appliances, fire stations and firefighters. What else could yield the savings to pay for an above-inflation pay settlement?
There are all sorts of ways, highlighted in the Bain inquiry, of making savings in the fire service that involve neither selling off or reducing the facilities available for the protection of public safety nor creating redundancies. There are ways of making savings through good prudent management, as in any organisation. I believe that that is at the heart of the offer made by the employers and of the agreement that they seek to achieve in ensuring a rational distribution of resources based on risk. Where there are particular problems, they will be tackled, rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach to the allocation of assets and personnel.
"the use by a fire authority of property or facilities belonging to another fire authority".
That is all well and good, and understood. Clause 1(2)(c) refers to payments being made accordingly. Those eventualities are covered in those two subsections. I return, however, to clause 1(2)(a) and ask the Minister whether he would please define in simple terms what is meant by the term "disposal", if it is different from the definition that Mr. Hammond just gave.
I shall give the hon. Gentleman an example. Some fire authorities, particularly the more enlightened, have recognised that they can create efficiency by perhaps sharing a control room facility, whereby two authorities come together to establish a joint control room. While two existed previously, an office may have been disposed of to allow the creation of a single joint control room, which may be more capable and have better technology to deal with calls more rapidly. That will have involved, at some level, the disposal of an asset, but not necessarily to the disadvantage of residents in either fire authority area.
To answer the hon. Gentleman's point directly, of course "disposal" can mean either the sale of an asset or the transfer of an asset from one fire authority to another, but it does not necessarily mean in any way degrading the protection of public safety.
I am not alleging that for one moment, but the Minister has just confirmed the awful scenario to which I referred: the village station closing down and the town station looking after its own interest. The best example that the Government have given so far has confirmed my worst fears.
I am loth to use the phrase, "Read my lips", but I repeat that we would use directions only to protect or enhance public safety. We do not intend to use directions for asset stripping, some sort of privatisation or a mass fire station closure programme. We want to ensure that the proper modernisation of the fire service—protecting public safety even more than it is already protected—can continue and can be implemented.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman said about rural fire stations and retained firefighters—it was a perfectly legitimate point for him or any Member with concerns about their constituency to raise. In many ways, the modernisation of the fire service involves enhancing protection, perhaps more for residential areas, because increasingly we are recognising the fact that the priority of saving lives has to come first.
People in many residential areas perhaps feel that they are too distant from fixed appliances or provision and that they could have an enhanced facility. Those discussions need to go on in fire authorities as they consider their risk management plans and implement them to improve public safety by focusing resources and reducing those risks that are perhaps too high at present.
The Bill's explanatory notes set out the circumstances in which the powers may be used—for example
"to provide joint control rooms, to direct that equipment be placed at the service of third parties, or to direct that that equipment be distributed on a risk assessment basis."
We are all encouraged by the fact that there has not been a strike since early February, but we must be prepared for all eventualities.
Should a strike occur, it is vital that those providing emergency cover have an automatic right of access to fire authority assets, including, for example, fire stations, appliances and aerial platforms should they be needed. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge raised that point when he referred to the remarks of the Deputy Prime Minister. Those are assets that the public have paid for so that lives and property can be protected. They may be needed strategically in the event of a strike.
Some authorities are considerably further down the modernisation route than others. Indeed, when a member of the Bain inquiry came to Shropshire, he said that the county has the most modernised fire brigade. That means that less saving is available to the authority to pay for the wage settlements through modernisation. The Government said that they would take that into account when they divide up the additional money, but since they are recovering that money at a later stage—it is, in effect, a tide-over loan—my concern is that these rules may be used to fund the pay settlement in Shropshire, which is already modernised, through the sale of assets.
All fire authorities have scope to improve and modernise. The hon. Gentleman says that his fire authority has modernised in a number of areas, but perhaps it could still engage in joint control room activity and so forth. There are a number of ways for all authorities to contribute.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge specifically asked whether the orders could be used to implement integrated risk management plans. Given that integrated risk management is part of the agreement on offer from the employers and which the FBU executive is recommending to its members, it is true that should that agreement not come to fruition and not be implemented, it would be possible to use orders to make such improvements and to implement a risk management approach.
The hon. Gentleman's specific point was about whether there would be consultation on the use of such orders. Indeed, the provisions on facilities and property allow for consultation on their use—appropriate consultation with those directly affected and those representing people who would be affected. In many ways, that is the right approach to take.
I drew the distinction between the use of those powers to implement an already agreed and approved integrated risk management plan in respect of which the consultation exercise would have been undertaken, and the use of powers to enforce modernisation—where for one reason or another, a satisfactory integrated risk management plan may not have been adopted. In that case, can the Minister confirm that the consultation procedure under subsection (4) mirrors that required by the circular on integrated risk management plans? In other words, will the situation be the same as that when an IRMP is developed properly?
The Bill will allow the Secretary of State to undertake a consultation exercise as he thinks fit because different circumstances can require different consultations. Should there be short notice of strike action, it would be inappropriate to engage in a protracted paper-based consultation. In the circumstances envisaged by the hon. Gentleman—an IRMP approach needs to be pursued locally, but there is obstruction for one reason or another—the Secretary of State would have greater scope to engage in more in-depth consultation. In the normal course of events, I envisage a consultation such as that which is normally undertaken when an IRMP is drawn up to be considered by the Secretary of State.
Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 would require a certain form of consultation and a report to Parliament. In some circumstances, they could mean that the Secretary of State would be unable to take prompt or immediate action to secure access to the required fire authority assets to give those providing the emergency cover the tools that they would need in the event of a strike. The amendments are unnecessary because the Bill already requires the Secretary of State to consult representatives of those likely to be affected by his proposals. There is ample provision to ensure that there will be appropriate consultation before an order is made. As I have said on property and facilities, there must be consultation with those directly affected and those who represent such people. Orders on conditions of service have to go before the negotiating body for at least 21 days for its comment, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said earlier.
We must follow the principle that the consultation is appropriate, reasonable and proportionate to the circumstances. Let us not forget that the Secretary of State is required to act reasonably at all times. That responsibility is firmly accepted, but we must be prepared for and anticipate circumstances in which we may need to act swiftly if there is, in particular, an imminent threat to public safety.
I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington that, as I have said, it is highly probable that in the normal course of events the Secretary of State would wish to consult local Members of Parliament and local authorities—and, indeed, the local community. I do not think that members of that community should be excluded from a prescriptive list. Including specific lists of consultees may risk the omission of others with a genuine interest.
The Committee should resist the proposal for a report of consultations in Parliament to be laid before the making of an order. That could constitute an administrative obstacle that might inhibit swift action to protect public safety. If swift access to fire authority assets is needed owing to a risk to public safety, the preparation of a parliamentary report on a consultation exercise will not be a desirable prerequisite. However, I hear what my hon. Friend says about the need for a wider examination of accountability processes for the fire services in general. I noted his suggestion of a conglomerated report, perhaps on an annual basis.
These powers are necessary. We need to hold them in reserve, although, as I have said, I hope that they will not be required. We must make contingency arrangements to protect and enhance public safety.
When I tabled my amendments, I did not expect such widespread support for them. I am almost tempted to press them to a vote.
The responses so far have been reassuring, to an extent. We have been reassured, for instance, that the disposal power is not linked to any mass programme of sales—that it will be used in extremis, when there is no agreement at local level following adequate consultation. In normal circumstances, devolved powers will remain at local level. We have also been reassured about the overall consultation, and about the examination of an overall report to Parliament.
The Government have moved to some extent, but I think that a message should be sent to Ministers about concerns that have been expressed by Members on both sides about the potential impact on communities if this develops into a large-scale disposal programme. The powers in the Bill are not suited to that. The discussion that we have had so far about the development of risk management has involved enhanced resources, and increased provision rather than cuts.
On the basis of the assurances that we have been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 6, at end insert—
'(1A) The provision that may be made by virtue of subsection (1)(a) includes the power to make provision about conditions of service relating to—
(a) membership of trades unions by fire brigade members; and
(b) disciplinary offences by fire brigades members.'.
Amendment No. 1 deals with the third issue raised by my right hon. Friend David Davis on Second Reading. It is designed to give the Deputy Prime Minister the power, but not the obligation, to enforce his orders by introducing, through the disciplinary code, a strike ban, and if necessary to regulate membership of trade unions by fire brigade members. This may seem a slightly tortuous way of presenting the proposal, but the options were limited by the scope and architecture of the Bill, and I can assure the Committee, having taken advice, that this was the only way in which to test the Government.
I was about to say that I was delighted to see that Mr. Lloyd had returned, but he has now left again. I am sure he will return. He asked whether we proposed the creation of criminal offences. He will note from the phrasing of the amendment that it specifically does not create such an offence; nor does it raise the spectre of sequestration of assets, as some suggested during earlier discussions. It does allow the creation of a disciplinary offence, similar to those created by the Police Acts—failure to obey a lawful order being a disciplinary offence in a police force. If this Secretary of State chose or needed to use the power, this would provide a mechanism for the imposition of a ban on industrial action when that was necessary.
I understand that the Home Secretary has proposed that prison officers should recover their legal right to strike, but should then enter into a negotiated no-strike agreement. The amendment would allow a similar type of strike ban in relation to fire brigades, but it would not be negotiated. Nothing in the Bill would be negotiated; it would all be imposed by the Secretary of State. The Deputy Prime Minister might call it an arbitrated strike ban, imposed by himself.
On Second Reading and subsequently, Members on both sides of the House have recognised the strength of the case that the Bill's fatal weakness as a means of imposing a settlement and ensuring that it works is its lack of teeth. Mr. Davey, who unfortunately cannot be with us today, acknowledged that as a defect in his proposals on Second Reading. More surprisingly, perhaps, Jeremy Corbyn—who is present—raised the question on Second Reading.
The hon. Gentleman put to the Deputy Prime Minister a scenario in which he had imposed a settlement and some or all fire brigade members simply refused to accept it, and went on strike. He asked what the Deputy Prime Minister would do at that point. The Deputy Prime Minister, I am afraid, replied
"That is the difficult question that we have to answer in this matter, and I give the best of my judgment... 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."—[Hansard, 8 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 857.]
In other words, he did not have a clue, and he did not answer the hon. Gentleman's question.
I am going to guess that the hon. Member for Islington, North will not support my proposal for the Secretary of State to introduce a no-strike provision. None the less, he has identified the fatal flaw in the Bill, although he will no doubt approach the solution from a rather different angle.
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that aspect. If he opposes the Bill for the same reasons as me, and if his solution is a no-strike law relating to firefighters, what will he do—or what will a putative Tory Government do—when the firefighters strike? Will he recruit them all to the Army, as President Reagan did when the air traffic controllers went on strike? Or will he send soldiers to the firefighters' homes to drag them out, place them in fire tenders, and say "Go and put out fires"? Or will he do nothing, apart from negotiating—which is really the only way in which to solve industrial problems?
The amendment would give the Deputy Prime Minister power to make regulations relating to disciplinary offences. It cannot be very specific, but we envisage the Secretary of State's being able, in appropriate circumstances, to make failure to obey a lawful order a disciplinary offence, just as it is in our police forces. That, in practice, would give the Secretary of State a weapon—albeit, perhaps, imperfect—in addition to those that the Bill would give him in its present incarnation, namely none at all.
I accept that this may not be a perfect solution, but we have deliberately eschewed criminal sanctions against firefighters who go on strike, and the sequestration of assets.
We do not believe that that is the appropriate way to proceed in the current circumstances. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are talking about a Bill that is time-limited to two years; it is a short-term emergency provision. The Minister has made it absolutely clear that in terms of time, he expects it to dovetail with permanent legislation arising from his White Paper. I understand from what has been said before that whether or not the Government support no-strike provisions, the White Paper will explore that area and the possible relevance of a no-strike power.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify two points? His amendment No. 1 refers to
"the power to make provision about conditions of service relating to—
(a) membership of trade unions by fire brigade members".
Does that mean that this provision could enable the Secretary of State to say that firefighters are not eligible for trade union membership? On the amendment and disciplinary offences, if the Secretary of State introduces disciplinary measures against an individual trade unionist for not abiding by an instruction and that trade unionist's colleagues come out on strike, what happens then?
To answer the second question first, those that did so, if the Secretary of State had so regulated, would be in breach of the disciplinary code, just as police officers who went out on strike action would be in breach of the police disciplinary code. We can ask the question: ultimately, what do we do with those who do not obey the regulations? They would be in breach of their contract and of the disciplinary code, and the fire authority would have an additional weapon at its disposal. On the hon. Gentleman's first question, the answer is clearly yes: the Secretary of State could use that power to prevent membership of a trade union by members of a fire brigade, in the same way that powers exist to prevent membership of a trade union by members of a police force.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman should have sought derogation to give himself the power to legislate to prevent people from being members of a free association of workers.
I suspect that I have a little more chance of becoming Secretary of State than John McDonnell, but we will leave that matter for another day. I am seeking to discover, as the hon. Member for Islington, North sought to do, how this Bill will perform its function as effective emergency legislation that addresses a real and present danger that needs to be addressed. We have told the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister that we can and would support properly designed and constructed legislation with proper teeth that enables the Deputy Prime Minister to impose a settlement and make it stick. We will not support the Government in a propaganda exercise that is not designed to produce effective legislation. If there is no provision to enforce a settlement, as well as to impose it, this legislation will not be effective.
The preservation of public safety requires that strikes in this vital emergency service do not take place while we are in the current situation of great overstretch of military capacity and an absence of adequate military resources to deal with any fire strike, should it occur.
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman one more time; my only disappointment is that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central has missed the meaty part of the debate.
The hon. Gentleman wants, in effect, to have a no-strike clause for the fire service because of what he calls the current national emergency, but what about the ambulance service, accident and emergency units in hospitals, and so on? Once we go down this particular route it does not stop; we end up with a very oppressive state that controls its work force in order to cope with a perceived emergency.
We are dealing with a very specific case. We are dealing not with a theoretical problem but with an actual problem. The dispute has been running for a year, strikes have occurred and Ministers and the Deputy Prime Minister have confirmed that further strikes will put public safety and lives at risk. We do not face a similar situation in relation to any other services—there is no issue to be addressed. They ain't broke, so we don't need to fix them, but the fire service presents a real problem that needs to be addressed today. This is not intended to be the slippery slope. The fire service is right in the front line, and we are addressing the problem that we face today.
When the Deputy Prime Minister introduced this Bill, he said:
"Legislation is therefore necessary in the public interest and to protect . . . safety."
But safety is protected by requiring the fire service to be there when it is needed, and the Bill as it stands gives the Secretary of State absolutely no power to ensure that that is so. The Deputy Prime Minister continued:
"My main point about anti-strike legislation . . . is that it would take many months for it to go through the House and be achieved."
That is hardly a principled objection to anti-strike legislation, and it is also palpably not true. If the Government accepted this amendment tonight, they could include in the Bill provisions that would give it teeth and ensure that any settlement that the Deputy Prime Minister imposed could be effectively implemented.
Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister spelled out the risks on Second Reading. He listed the reduction in troop numbers available, and he told the House that only 250 green goddesses and 9,000 troops would be available in a future dispute to cover the entire United Kingdom 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He concluded:
In those circumstances, when the Government themselves have identified that further strikes will endanger life and put property at risk, surely the duty of a responsible Government is to ensure that strikes do not occur. Of course, a strike ban unilaterally imposed by the Secretary of State represents an erosion of rights—I would be the first to acknowledge that—but so does the rest of this Bill, through the imposition of pay settlements and terms and conditions of work. That is why we have argued—successfully—for a time limit on this measure. But with no power to impose a strike ban, the entire Bill becomes an unenforceable nonsense.
Back-Bench Labour Members know very well that although a settlement that the Secretary of State purported to impose against the will of the body of fire brigade employees might stick in Shropshire and Surrey, it stands not a chance of sticking in Essex, Merseyside and Clydeside. The Secretary of State needs to have a way of making the powers that he has under this Bill stick. We believe that in the longer term, just as firefighters are entitled to fair pay that reflects the indispensable and much enhanced role that they play in our society, so the public are entitled to be free of the threat to their safety, and the military are entitled to be free of the intolerable burden that fire strikes impose on them.
We expect that the White Paper that the Government are promising to publish will consider the mechanisms for setting pay and conditions for the fire service independently. The point was made earlier that if people's rights to take industrial action are restricted, a fair and independent mechanism for setting pay must be in place. I acknowledge that that is not available under the Bill, because the Secretary of State will set pay unilaterally. In the longer term, when consideration of the Bill comes to an end and we are left with permanent legislation arising from the White Paper, two key principles must go hand in hand: the unique contribution of firefighters must be recognised, likewise the unacceptability of using public safety as a pawn in industrial disputes. Strikes therefore cannot be permitted as part of such a dispute.
For now, the focus is on the Bill. If it is to work as an effective, short-term, time-limited measure that will resolve the current dispute, relieve the unacceptable impact on our military preparedness and ensure public safety, it must include a power to make anti-strike provisions: otherwise, it will not succeed. It does not mean that the Deputy Prime Minister has to use the power, but it must be available to him. A settlement imposed by the Deputy Prime Minister will simply be ignored if it does not have any teeth.
The Government have consistently refused to tell us how they will deal with such a situation where a settlement is imposed and ignored, but have made it clear that they will not provide and finance military cover to fire authorities that face industrial action. The Minister for Local Government and the Regions said on Second Reading:
"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".—[Hansard, 8 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 918.]
The first sentence is right, but the second sentence is simply a non-sequitur. Drawing a line under the dispute will not, without no-strike powers, ensure that the public secure a fully functioning fire service. The Minister has failed to deal with the question of enforcing a settlement, which, to be blunt, is likely to inflame the mood in the more militant areas. He acknowledged that further strike action would inevitably create a greater risk to public safety.
I noticed that the Minister carefully avoided—[Interruption.] That must be the Deputy Prime Minister on the phone now, telling the Minister what to say. The Minister carefully avoided endorsing the Deputy Prime Minister's position against no-strike provisions and promised that the White Paper would set out the Government's intentions in that respect. However, the Minister also referred to the Attorney-General's continuing involvement in the process. The Attorney-General already has powers, but Ministers have insisted throughout the dispute that he cannot be prevailed upon to use them.
If I were a conspiracy theorist—other Members in the Chamber are more likely candidates—I might just wonder whether the collective judgment of Ministers is that dramatically reducing the number of troops and the number of appliances available for future disputes, and drawing attention—as both the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have done—to the increased risks that a strike would entail, are a means of forcing the Attorney-General to apply for an injunction because of the commensurate risks to public safety. The Government could then secure the no-strike position without having to go through the internal Labour party conflict that supporting such a provision in the Bill might produce. If that is their game, surely it is better to be up-front about it and build the power into the Bill as part of a package to impose a settlement and make it stick. A responsible Government with the safety of the public at the forefront of their mind should take the opportunity to make such a power available and ensure that the Bill is workable.
We can support the Bill only if it is a time-limited, effective measure that will genuinely bring the dispute to a conclusion and enforce a settlement that the Secretary of State imposes. If the Government will not assume powers to enable them to enforce such an imposed settlement, the Bill will have been a waste of Parliament's time. It will not achieve the Government's stated objectives. I urge the Minister to put the needs of public safety ahead of considerations about internal Labour party or labour movement politics and accept amendment No. 1. At the very least, the Government should give a commitment to produce something similar to that amendment, so that the Bill has real teeth and to ensure that the powers assumed by the Secretary of State can be deployed as part of a negotiating process and made to work to bring the dispute to an end and restore public safety to its former level.
I shall speak to my amendment No. 14 in a moment. However, the Pinochet of Runnymede and Weybridge has excited me in respect of his vision for the future of industrial relations in this country. We should perhaps phone Anfield now, because he mentioned Merseyside as one of the areas that would not accept an imposed settlement. He would first introduce strike bans in such an area, then ban trade union membership and, if people still went on strike, he would presumably bring the full force of the law against them.
That was the Pinochet model, and he also usually had people crowded into football stadiums. Under the hon. Gentleman, Anfield and other football stadiums would be fairly crowded.
To clarify the situation, I confirm that General Pinochet was a guest in my constituency for some time, at the insistence of the Labour Government, but he has now departed. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the clause is specifically drawn so that a criminal offence would not be created? Any action would be a disciplinary offence between the employer and the employee, not a criminal offence.
And then what would happen? What would the next sanction be? It must be a free ticket to Anfield. Once we have legislation that bans human basic human rights, it must be taken to the ultimate conclusion—as with the Shrewsbury pickets—of locking people up. Amendment No. 1 is farcical. I always thought that the organisation Conservative Trade Unionists was a contradiction in terms.
I just hope that trade unionists have witnessed this debate. The 9 million members of the TUC will now know that if they go on strike under a future Conservative Government, if ever elected, that Government could define their industry as an essential service. The members would then not only lose their right to a negotiated settlement, but their right to strike and, eventually, to trade union membership.
What is an essential service? Is it the ambulance service? We had an ambulance service dispute a short time ago. Is it local government? We had a social services dispute last year. Is it transport? Some American states are seeking to ban strike action in the shipping industry and control who may work in the industry.
We have had a revelation tonight of what a Conservative Government would mean for trade unions. I sometimes have a few problems with new Labour, but this debate has reassured me about why it is important to maintain Labour in power. It is clear that fundamental human rights would disappear if a Conservative Government were ever elected again.
Amendment No. 14 seeks to delete from the definition of conditions of service the words
"hours of duty or leave".
The present dispute concerns pay and allowances, so I can understand why the Government wish to take a power to impose a settlement on pay and allowances, although I do not agree with that. However, I do not understand why the Government wish to impose conditions for hours of duty or leave. I thought that that issue was to be a subject for local negotiation. It is best left to negotiation at the local level, as the Minister said this evening about the introduction of new shift patterns. Local negotiations can ensure that shift patterns are family-friendly at the specific level of individual fire stations. Why is it thought right to give the Secretary of State the power to impose conditions for hours of duty or leave at the local level? Why do the Government want to extend the power beyond pay and allowances, which is what the dispute is about?
I thought that the Conservatives had so far lived up to their latest more cuddly incarnation and their attempts to be the middle-of-the-road party. The way in which they dealt with the first few groups of amendments could certainly have fooled people into thinking that. However, on amendment No.1, the ugly face of Conservatism has re-emerged. People are right to be concerned about what will happen if parties to the dispute refuse to accept the settlement imposed under the Bill. If the Conservative amendment had stopped at disciplinary offences, we could have understood their logic—although we would not have supported it. However, the Conservatives have gone one step further. They want to include membership of trade unions. This is GCHQ all over again.
Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the amendment is based on the current practice with police regulations? Members of police forces are not allowed to belong to a police force trade union—although, bizarrely, they can retain membership of a union that is irrelevant to their police service. Officers cannot belong to a police trade union, and it is a disciplinary offence to fail to obey a lawful order. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that what our constituents care about is the preservation of public safety and security. It is much to their credit that fire brigades members play as important a role as the police in protecting us against the threats that we face every day in our society.
Ambulance workers do the same, as do workers in NHS accident and emergency departments and, to some extent, the people who work in our power stations. The logic of the amendment is that if—heaven forbid—there were to be another Conservative Government, strikes would be banned every time there was industrial action in any sector that could be said to affect public safety. Moreover, the workers in those sectors would be banned from belonging to trade unions. The amendment is more than draconian—
I shall not repeat the word used from a sedentary position by a Labour Member, but the amendment goes well beyond anything that the Conservatives have said before on the matter. It is incredible that the proposal should have been introduced in this way.
Mr. Hammond did not want to use a certain word when he asked about disciplinary offences, but it is clear that the Conservatives would sack fire brigade personnel. If the amendment were agreed and a settlement imposed, everyone who refused to accept it would be sacked. If all the FBU members went out on strike, the Conservatives would sack them, with the result that we would not have a fire service. Presumably, the Army would have to step in—the very thing that the Conservatives are trying to avoid.
It is to cover exactly that circumstance that we tried to introduce, earlier in the Bill's passage through the House, provisions to allow rounds of arbitration and postal ballots. None of us wants to get to the stage that the hon. Gentleman has described, but the problem with the amendment is that it sends a message to fire brigade members that a future Conservative Government would impose a pay settlement and sack anyone who did not like it. Then there would be no fire service, and we would have to start all over again. We would have to recruit brand-new people to the service, and the Army would have to cover the entire country during that period.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's speech with interest. Will he confirm that Shropshire would not be a strike-free zone? I hope that it would not. However, is not the logic of the argument for the amendment that members of a union would be dismissed from their place of work and only allowed back if they signed some sort of loyalty oath, to the effect that they would not take part in industrial action or join a trade union? That is what has happened in other countries with oppressive Governments who operate on principles that are totally anti-trade union—principles that the modern Conservative party seems to want to adopt.
The hon. Gentleman may know more about other countries' arrangements. He might be disappointed to learn that FBU members in Shropshire continued to go on strike only because they felt that they owed it to fellow union members in other parts of the country. They wanted to accept the settlements, and that has been the feeling in Shropshire for some time. I therefore do not think that there exists the strength of feeling that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Will the hon. Gentleman remind me of how many times since 1919 policemen have had to be dismissed because they went on strike? How many times has the Army had to take over the role of the police? What the hon. Gentleman describes is not a real situation, and it does not happen in practice.
Our point is that we need to recognise that the time has come to place the fire service on a par with the police service. As we go forward with the Minister's White Paper and the new Fire Services Act that this Bill will become, there will have to be proper and independent arrangements for setting fire service pay in the absence of a right to strike.
No, of course I do not know how many strikes there have been since 1919.
It is clear that the right hon. Gentleman does not have much understanding of how to resolve industrial disputes. Threatening to ban people from membership of a trade union generates industrial disputes, as happened at GCHQ, rather than resolving them. Such inflammatory language—the pun is not intended—will serve only to encourage FBU members to reject the offer on
Thank you for calling me, Sir Alan. I shall be brief.
The Bill has at least one benefit; it has drawn out what the industrial relations policy of the Opposition actually is. They may have been in listening mode for the past year, but I do not know which trade unions they have been listening to; the ones that I meet and consult would be horrified at the proposals in the amendment. Although we are referring to a particular dispute in a specific service, the danger is that such ideas might become more generally applicable. As the Opposition are in listening mode, I hope that they will listen to some trade unionists rather than act as they have done so far.
I listen generally to my constituents.
What the hon. Gentleman said of the amendment is equally applicable to the Bill. Is he really alarmed that the Government are about to embark on a path where they could use similar legislation, with powers for the Secretary of State to impose settlements across all essential services such as transport and utilities? Of course he is not. This is a specific dispute; it is a specific problem in a unique emergency service. It is disingenuous of Labour Members to try to tell us what our policy is when we have made it clear that this is a special circumstance and the policy would apply only to the fire service.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; he has almost taken the words out of my mouth. I was about to say that, much as I welcome the fact that we have managed to tease out the thoughts of the official Opposition, the proposals draw out even more clearly the reason why some of us are bitterly opposed to the measure. It would be a slippery slope—this is a classic case. The Bill would allow any Government, although not of a hue that I would ever support, to use this dispute as a precedent. They could say that as these circumstances had been dealt with in that way, they could do the same thing in the next case and in the one after that. The ratchet would keep being tightened.
There is another notion with which I am genuinely trying to struggle: when a decision had been arrived at democratically by members of a trade union through a free ballot and been acted on through some form of industrial action, although not necessarily strike action, sanctions would be taken against individuals. In all the often ill-thought-out industrial relations legislation that has been passed in this place, the notion has always been that the collective, not the individual, is attacked.
The individual's human rights—and dare I say that labour rights are a form of human rights?—are sacrosanct. However, the Opposition's proposals mean that sanctions against a strike or whatever action is taken involve attacking individuals and their rights.
We all know that it is easy to talk about taking disciplinary action, which all sounds meek and mild. However, as my hon. Friend John McDonnell and Matthew Green pointed out, disciplinary action can involve sacking people. That is not a million miles from what the official Opposition appear to want. It involves attacking a trade union by taking action against individuals, and that is a totally reprehensible change in our culture of dealing with the way in which people—whether it is the Government, the employer or the work force as represented by their trade union taking the lead—behave in industrial disputes. It is a deplorable line to tread with hobnailed boots.
I have a final observation. If anyone thinks that there is a close parallel between the fire service and the police, they should think again. There are great differences between them. However, I always smile when people talk about the Police Federation as though it is not a trade union. Whenever a Government have acted directly against the views of the Police Federation, I doubt that they have ever managed to get changes introduced. In the past pay and conditions debacle, the Police Federation clearly came out against the settlement and, lo and behold, the Government completely rethought their policy. In a sense, one could say that that is good industrial relations. The collective worked and individuals did not need to be put into a position in which they were disciplined. However, if one ever took disciplinary action against a policeman or woman because they were carrying out the democratically arrived at will of the Police Federation, the results would be very interesting.
Anyone who naively thinks that the Opposition proposal is a good one does not know much about industrial relations. I urge not just the official Opposition but the Government to think again about the route that they are taking, because it is fraught with problems.
I do not know whether the amendment was tabled to unite Labour Members, but at a time when we are somewhat divided about the Government's Bill, it has done precisely that.
To say the least, I have a number of reservations about the way in which the current dispute has been conducted by the union, and I have made that clear. However, I shall not go into that point now. I am very much opposed to the Conservatives' amendment. They say that the nature of the work undertaken by firefighters means that, like the police, they should not be allowed to take strike action. The Opposition are using the police as an example to be followed by the firefighters. However, if a Conservative Government were to take such action, I can imagine that those involved in other essential or emergency work would be told that the police and the firefighters are banned from taking strike action, so why should the same rule not apply to other groups of workers? Mr. Hammond shakes his head, but I am concerned about the escalation of the argument.
We know why the police are not permitted to take strike action, but my hon. Friend Mr. Drew was right to point out the effectiveness of the trade union—the Police Federation—that represents the police.
In a democracy, the fact that the police cannot take industrial action, for reasons that most of us understand, should not be an excuse to deny other groups of workers the right to take action if they so wish. Obviously, I would rather that firefighters did not take strike action, but I accept that they have the right to do so if a majority vote is secured in a ballot.
I was in the House on
I conclude by asking a question. Does the amendment represent official Conservative party policy? Will the Conservative party give a clear commitment at the next general election that if it is elected, firefighters will not be able to take strike action? If the party adopts such a policy, it should be made absolutely clear when the electorate makes up its mind. The issue is important and everyone in a democracy should be aware of it. I look forward to hearing what the Conservative party says when the election comes.
We have had an illuminating debate that has shown clearly the division among the parties in the House. Mr. Hammond and his party will deeply regret the unattractive face of anti-trade union and authoritarian Conservatism that lies behind the amendment.
The hon. Gentleman said that Conservative Members had three main proposals. The first was a sunset clause, which we agreed to. The second proposal was a provision for secret ballots. We said that there was a case for secret ballots but that the mechanism proposed was neither workable nor appropriate, although we did not disagree with him in principle. However, the hon. Gentleman's third proposal is an anti-trade union provision with which we profoundly disagree.
It is essential to adopt a measured approach to solve what has been one of this country's most difficult industrial disputes in recent years, which is what the Government are trying to do. We do not pretend that we are taking an easy route or that it is not fraught with difficulties. Our response is measured and serious, and balances proper concern for public safety, which remains our overriding priority, with respect for people's rights to organise in trade unions and advance their interests in a democratic society. Our proposals are designed to help to secure a solution, whereas the Conservative party's proposals seem to be designed to create a more bitter and extensive industrial conflict and to provoke a serious breakdown in relations with the trade union movement in this country. I cannot believe that the Conservative party, on reflection, will want to continue to advocate the policies that we heard tonight. I also hope that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will realise on reflection that his conspiracy theory about the Government and the Attorney-General is deeply unworthy and of no substance whatsoever. I hope that he will agree, on reflection, that the comment should be withdrawn.
The central issue is the right to strike. I remind the House that there is no statutory right to strike in the United Kingdom. On the one hand, there is no practical way to prevent people from withdrawing their labour or to force them to work but, on the other, people who do not work normally will usually be in breach of contract. The de facto right to strike is given by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. It provides statutory immunity for striking workers and their trade unions so that they are protected from legal action on breaches of contract, provided that the industrial action is in response to a trade dispute and subject to proper balloting and notification procedures. In addition, the ability to strike is an important part of the freedom to associate under article 11 of the European convention on human rights. That is also germane to the debate although the Conservative party appears to have little or no regard for such conventions.
In the Government's view, employees' ability to take lawful strike action should be withdrawn only in exceptional circumstances. We have no plans do so at present in relation to firefighters. We have made it clear that the issue will be covered in the White Paper. Indeed, it was raised by the Bain review, which suggested that it be considered further. We will do that, but as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear on Second Reading our judgment is not in favour of removing that right from firefighters. I accept that it is a matter of judgment whether firefighters, like the police, perform a role that possibly justifies interfering with the basic right of any working person to withdraw their labour. Our judgment remains that they do not.
The fire service does, of course, have similarities with the police service, but there are also significant differences in the light of which we believe that anti-strike legislation would not be appropriate. There is a fundamental difference in the role of the police and fire services. The police, as enforcers of national law, must be independent and must act on behalf of us all. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated in the course of the past year that the armed forces have been able to provide effective alternative fire cover to a high standard. In normal circumstances, there is no such alternative to the police service.
In addition, the House will remember that before this last year there had been more than 25 years without a national strike in the fire service. There had been local disagreements and local industrial action, but nothing that led to proposals of this nature being introduced by any party on either side of the House. We should not make the mistake of confusing the current situation for the norm. We must certainly not allow the dispute to continue and we need a strategy for the future that will minimise the chances of it happening again. I have already described how the Bill and our forthcoming White Paper will do that in their different but complementary ways. Achieving a fire service for the future will depend on committed and motivated staff at all levels. Reducing the rights of staff is, in my view, neither helpful nor likely to achieve a productive outcome.
In all events, I do not think that the kind of powers that would be conferred by amendment No. 1 would be in any way appropriate. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge spent a great deal of time during our consideration of the Local Government Bill criticising the Government for giving too many powers to the Secretary of State. Yet he is proposing not only that the Secretary of State should have power to legislate about fundamental things such as trade union membership, but that he should also be able to change the disciplinary code to make strike action an offence solely by order rather than by primary legislation on which the House decides. I cannot understand the logic behind those proposals.
Amendment No. 14, tabled by my hon. Friend John McDonnell, is designed to restrict the Secretary of State's power so that he could not fix or modify the hours of duty and leave of fire brigade members. The intended effect of that would be twofold. First, the Secretary of State would not be able to address firefighters' conditions of service as a whole. He would not, for example, be able to make changes to hours of duty or leave arrangements that might be welcomed by firefighters. There would inevitably be less scope to produce a package that could address the range of issues to which firefighters attach importance.
Secondly, the amendment might make it more difficult to make progress with the modernisation of the service. A key question is how to match hours of work to the peaks of demand and risk. That will almost certainly require some change from the current patterns of work, which have remained pretty much the same for 25 years or more. That does not mean, as some have suggested, wholesale changes to shift patterns and working conditions. Our best judgment is that new flexible arrangements could be introduced under which a majority of firefighters would remain on their current shift patterns if they wanted to.
There are likely to be other options, however, including different shift patterns and working hours, some of which will involve more family-friendly hours, which could be more attractive to some serving firefighters and potential new recruits. The precise changes needed will have to be considered locally and will emerge from the risk management plans on which fire authorities are working and on which they will consult. If we are driven to a position in which we have no option but to use the powers, we will need to be able to make the right changes that work with fire authorities' agreed plans.
I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that there could be some downsides to his proposal and I have explained why I do not support the purpose of the amendment. Having said that, perhaps I should also tell him that I do not believe that it would have the effect that he wants to produce.
The definition in clause 2(2) is not exhaustive: the phrase "conditions of service" includes the matters listed, but is not limited to them. If the matters listed were amended to remove any mention of hours of duty or leave, the phrase "conditions of service" would still have its natural meaning, and the so-called grey book, which contains firefighters' terms of service, makes it clear that that meaning includes hours of duty and leave. My hon. Friend's amendment would therefore not have the effect that he desires, and I ask him not to press it.
I hope that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will agree to withdraw his, frankly, unworthy and undesirable amendment.
It is my turn now to accuse the Minister of synthetic anger. We have heard from Labour Members the most ridiculous extrapolations from a very specific provision relating to a very specific Bill. The Bill deals with the fire service. The Minister is himself taking powers to impose a settlement; we are trying to ensure that such a settlement can work and to make the Bill a piece of legislation that in the two-year interim period in which it will be in force will deliver the end to the current dispute and to strikes that the Minister says he wants.
It is interesting that the Minister has not ruled out an anti-strike provision. He has said that the White Paper will give consideration to it in the context of the new fire service legislation—the permanent Act. We believe that in any such situation, there must be an independent and fair mechanism for setting pay. The Minister says that it is a matter of judgment and that his judgment is that it would not be helpful. I respect that, but I am glad that he at least acknowledges that the matter is one that should be aired, that it will be in the White Paper, and that the House will have an opportunity to consider it again.
Our judgment is different. When the Government have already admitted that further strikes would endanger life and property but they are going to do nothing about it; when the Government are introducing legislation that gives the Secretary of State a power to impose a settlement but absolutely no power to make that settlement stick; when tens of thousands of troops are potentially to be tied down—
It being five and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the programme motion, The Chairman pursuant to Order [
Question accordingly negatived.
The Chairman then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.
Amendment made: No. 17, in clause 1, page 2, line 18, at end insert—
'( ) No order shall be made under this section more than two years after the commencement of this Act, except for the purpose of revoking provision contained in a previous order.'.—[Mr. Raynsford.]
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.