Section 33 — Repeals and consequential amendments

Local Government in Scotland Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:15 pm on 8th January 2003.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 4:15 pm, 8th January 2003

We now come to the final group, which is on repeals. Amendment 59 is in a group on its own.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

The purpose of amendment 59 is to remove outdated requirements under the Fire Services Act 1947. The change for the fire service will be broadly in line with the similar provisions that were made for the police some time ago and it will bring the fire service broadly into line with other local services that are dealt with at a local level. In particular, the amendment will remove provisions for the fire authorities to have to seek and get ministerial consent for what are now regarded as operational matters that are properly under the direct control of chief fire officers and their locally accountable fire boards. Those provisions relate to any decisions to close a fire station or to reduce staff or equipment.

The amendment will ensure that chief officers can deploy their resources efficiently without any of the constraints that are currently exercised by ministers. It will effectively remove detailed control by ministers over establishment levels, as such control is archaic. Fire authorities will still be expected to consult local communities on any changes to local provision. We will use powers to issue guidance to formalise best practice in such matters, ensuring full local consultation on any such moves on the part of fire boards. Fire boards and councils will be obliged to have regard to the guidance that we would issue, which will help to increase local democratic accountability in these matters.

The amendment will ensure that the deployment of resources is a matter for local management. The Executive consulted on the issues that the amendment covers last summer in our policy paper "The Scottish Fire Service of The Future". That paper was fully debated by Parliament in May 2002. We highlighted the existing very prescriptive and long-standing standards of fire cover and we recommended changes to the Fire Services Act 1947 to provide for a more flexible framework for fire authorities and fire brigades.

The policy intention behind the amendment is supported by the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association. The amendment is also consistent with the principles of delegated responsibility and effective management, which are at the heart of the independent review into the reform of the fire service as set out in Professor Bain's recent report.

The amendment follows from the First Minister's announcement in the Parliament on 19 December that, in line with the Bain report's recommendations, an early legislative opportunity would be sought to repeal section 19 of the 1947 act. That question was raised by Tricia Marwick earlier.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Will the minister enlighten us on how far Executive thinking goes on the matter? The Executive has an analogous power in relation to the closure of schools, notably rural schools that are some distance from the nearest school and Roman Catholic schools—in those cases, the closure of a school requires the approval of ministers. Is the principle that we are discussing now not entirely similar? What does the minister think about the potential closure of rural fire stations that are located some considerable distance away from other rural fire stations? In such cases, should not ministers have precisely the same powers as they have in relation to schools?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

The essence of what we are trying to achieve through amendment 59 is a further delegation of power and responsibility to a local level, which is consistent with the delegation of powers to the Parliament and with the rest of the bill, which seeks to free up local authorities in a variety of ways. As Alasdair Morgan knows, local authorities have full discretion at the local level to deal with questions of school provision, except in very limited circumstances.

As I was saying, we highlighted the existing, very prescriptive and long-standing standards of fire cover and we recommended changes to the 1947 act in order to provide for a more flexible framework for fire authorities and fire brigades. As I also said, the intention behind the amendment is supported by the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

The minister makes great play of the fact that the amendment is supported by a range of organisations, including the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association. However, why have the firemen and firewomen, who deliver the service on the ground, not been properly consulted on the proposed changes or on the amendment? Why are they so ferociously opposed to the repeal of the act in this fashion? No one denies that the act needs to be amended or replaced, but the Executive is arguing for repeal. Why has the minister not negotiated the matter with the relevant trade union?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am pleased to receive Tommy Sheridan's support for the proposed changes to the 1947 act. As I indicated, the matter was subject to consultation in the report "The Scottish Fire Service of The Future", which set out the issues. I know that the Scottish Socialist Party did not respond to that consultation.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

It did, but it did not raise concerns about the part of the report to which the amendment relates. The FBU focused on the question of public-private partnerships.

The amendment is consistent with the principles of delegated responsibility and effective management, which are at the heart of the report of the independent Bain review.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I took part in the debate on the report "The Scottish Fire Service of The Future", which referred to attempts to achieve capital returns from the use and sale of fire service property. Like many members, I objected to that at the time. However, the document did not mention repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. That is the issue that we are addressing at the moment.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Some scaremongering is taking place. Members are trying to suggest that the amendment is part of a centrally driven effort to reduce fire services. That is not the case. The amendment is consistent with the rest of the bill, which is about freeing up local authorities and fire boards to do what they believe is correct at a local level. That is consistent with the principles that the Executive has pursued.

As I indicated, the amendment follows up on the First Minister's announcement to the Parliament on 19 December that, in line with the Bain recommendations, we would seek an early legislative opportunity to repeal section 19. The amendment is consistent with provisions that are being introduced in England and Wales through the Local Government Bill.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Given that the idea of repeal appears to have arisen after the publication of the Bain report, can the minister tell the chamber whether there is a reference to repeal of section 19 in the pathfinder report that the Executive has consistently suppressed?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I make it clear that we did not decide to proceed with repeal of section 19 until we saw that the Bain report confirmed the proposals on which the Executive had consulted and which had been debated in the Parliament. The matter was debated in relation to the Local Government Bill for England and Wales, which had its second reading at Westminster yesterday.

I know that members from all parties would like to make a number of points. I am happy to stop speaking now and to pick up other issues when I wind up in the debate.

I move amendment 59.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Will the minister answer the question that I asked?

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Order. There is plenty of time for debate. Under the timetabling motion—allowing time for the broadcasting time-out—we have until 17:04 for this debate. Speeches of four and a half to five minutes are permitted.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Today, the minister has repeated the assertion that consultation on the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 has taken place. The assertion is without any basis in truth.

I refer the minister to the consultation document "The Scottish Fire Service of The Future", which he has mentioned. I am prepared to give way to him if he can point me to a specific reference in that document to the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. No such reference exists. Page 18 of the document contains a recommendation from the Executive that the 1947 act be amended. Paragraph 121 on page 40 states:

"In paragraph 13 the need for legislative change has been discussed. We would welcome specific or general suggestions about those areas which require reform or a new statutory basis."

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I want to finish the point that I am making first. The assertion that the minister has made and that the First Minister made in the chamber on 19 December is not true. The consultation document contained no specific recommendation for the repeal of section 19. Indeed, the Executive was not even clear in its own mind what kind of legislative changes it wanted. That is why it was asking for specific or general recommendations from the people who were being consulted.

Despite the fact that there has been a consultation, the minister has yet to publish the consultation report, which means that no one in the chamber has read the findings of the consultation process.

It is a matter for the Parliament that the Bain report has not been made available to members. The minister advised us that copies would be made available to us. On the day that we received the letter telling us that, I requested a copy from the Scottish Parliament information centre. I understand that only yesterday six hard copies were placed in SPICe. I was the seventh person to request a copy, so the report was not available to me, although I have a copy from the web. If that is the level of consultation that we are talking about, it is simply not good enough.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

I ask the member to explain why she did not make an approach either to members of the Executive or to committee members when in response to her question on 19 December the First Minister said:

"Today I can confirm that, in line with one of the recommendations of the Bain report, we will be looking for an early legislative opportunity to repeal section 19 and related provisions in Scotland."

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

In that reply, the First Minister also said:

"In our consultation paper, which we published earlier this year, we considered repealing section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947".—[Official Report, 19 December 2002;

c 16607.]

That was at best misleading the Parliament, because, as I and other members have explained, there was no specific reference whatever to this proposal to repeal section 19 of the 1947 act.

Amendment 59 is sleekit, it is underhand and it strikes at the heart of the democracy of this new Parliament. To slip in an amendment that will deny any scrutiny of the proposals is to legislate by diktat. The purpose of the amendment is to allow the closure of fire stations and a reduction in the number of firefighters and appliances. It will take away the right of communities to be consulted about those changes. I see the minister shaking his head when I suggest that the amendment will do that specifically.

I will quote the Bain report and the reasons that it gives for recommending the repeal of section 19 of the 1947 act. In case the minister still has any doubts, I will tell him that Bain said that the Government must repeal section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, because, under that provision, a fire authority in Great Britain may not close a fire station or reduce appliances or firefighter posts without consent. Bain said that that is not consistent with the delegation of responsibility and effective management, which is why he believes that the repeal of section 19 of the 1947 act is needed.

What the minister has been saying today is simply not true. The Executive has taken the most contentious of all the Bain recommendations and is now trying to bludgeon it through the Parliament without allowing for any scrutiny. Delicate negotiations are going on with the Fire Brigades Union and the employers to end the present dispute. This shabby sleight of hand will inflame that situation and the responsibility for that rests squarely with the Executive and the Government.

The consultation paper said that the most significant thing to happen to the fire service in Scotland was the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, because the Parliament has responsibility for all matters concerning the Scottish fire service. I wondered why the Executive was slipping in amendment 59, but it became clear last night that, because something similar was happening at Westminster, the Executive had been telt to lodge amendment 59.

I urge the minister to withdraw the amendment. If he insists on pressing it, I urge members of all parties to combine to defeat it, to allow the Parliament the time for scrutiny that the proposal deserves and to ensure that, when fire stations are closed in future, communities will have the right to be consulted.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour 4:30 pm, 8th January 2003

It is perfectly legitimate for the Executive to propose a policy of repealing section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 and it is equally legitimate for members of the Parliament to be opposed to that policy. However, it is not legitimate for the Executive to seek to prevent the Parliament from exercising democratic scrutiny of the policy, which is what is happening this afternoon.

I am delighted that we will have more than the 15 minutes that the Executive originally scheduled for debating amendment 59. The Presiding Officer suggested an extra half an hour, so it looks as though we will have 45 minutes. That is better, but it is not much better. It remains the case that the Executive planners intended to allow just 15 minutes of debate to push through a highly controversial measure. No member of the Parliament can be happy at that prospect and no member should support such a move.

If the Executive has known since April that it intended to repeal section 19 of the 1947 act, why did not it lodge an amendment to that effect at stage 2? Why was the Local Government Committee not allowed to consider amendments to amendment 59 and why was evidence not taken on the proposal? If the Executive believes that the Parliament should be open, transparent and accessible, as we all claim that we want it to be, why did not it support Mike Russell's motion without notice, which would have allowed the Local Government Committee to consider what is a controversial issue and to seek the views of outside bodies on the Executive's proposal? That is the intention behind the Parliament's set-up.

It is a matter of huge regret that at Westminster the Government has indicated its intention to repeal section 19 of the 1947 act. However, the fact that it did so on second reading of a bill means that members of Parliament at Westminster will have the chance, at the committee stage, to table counter-amendments. At the report stage, they will have another chance to table amendments and to have proper debate. There will be proper parliamentary scrutiny, to the extent that Westminster is capable of carrying out scrutiny. We will look shabby by comparison. The Scottish Parliament should reject the Executive's proposal and have nothing to do with it.

As a socialist, I am always in favour of decentralisation. I believe that socialists should take power in order to give it away. However, the Executive's proposal is not such a measure. As other members have indicated, the Executive has kept powers to call in various issues—planning issues, issues associated with the closure of schools and land-sale issues, for example—even though local government has responsibility for those areas. The Executive says that the ability to appeal to ministers against local government thinking should be maintained in some areas.

Amendment 59 would allow chief fire officers to close down, or to merge, fire stations without an appeal to ministers. The minister says that he will introduce guidelines that will allow proper consultation. However, if the financial decision that forces police and fire boards to close fire stations has already been taken, it will still be possible to consult, but it will not be possible to listen to what people say, as the financial reality will be that the boards will not be able to afford to keep the stations open and will therefore close them anyway.

The power to close down, or to merge, fire stations is a central plank of the Bain recommendations. We are not simply debating local government powers. The issue goes to the heart of the present firefighters' dispute. It is about whether we have a fire service in this country that is safe, that meets the needs of the people and that is paid for through taxation, or whether we get a cut-price fire service that is easy on taxpayers but hard on the people whose lives are at risk in the evenings, when fire stations should be open and available to everyone.

In seeking to push through a highly controversial measure at the last minute, the Executive is in danger of throwing a bomb into a delicate and controversial dispute. The recommendations of the Bain committee seem almost to have been designed to be unacceptable to the firefighters. As they stand, they will never be accepted by the Fire Brigades Union. There is no possibility of a fair and just settlement that is acceptable to both sides if we go ahead with measures such as the proposal in amendment 59. If we agree to amendment 59, no one—particularly those on the side of the firefighters in their dispute—will trust the Executive again.

The new democracy that we seek to set up in this country cannot be tinkered with. If we begin to look shabby in comparison to Westminster, we will let down not only ourselves, but the Scottish people, who voted for the Parliament in a referendum and who put their faith in us. It is time that we responded to that faith by ensuring that we deal with matters democratically. We should deal with matters more democratically, not less democratically—as the Executive seeks to do by attempting to push through amendment 59—than Westminster does.

Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative

In her intervention on Tricia Marwick, Sylvia Jackson pointed out that the First Minister stated on 19 December that the Executive was considering the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. However, no one in the chamber expected that to happen through the Local Government in Scotland Bill with only 48 hours' notice.

We oppose amendment 59 not on its merits or otherwise but simply because we have been unable to take evidence on the proposal and to scrutinise it properly. Indeed, we are in danger of legislating on flawed policy. The key point is that we wish to consider the matter in the context of current circumstances. As a result, it is important that we speak to the various bodies involved, including councils, fire unions and firemasters. We oppose amendment 59 on that basis.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I hope that some back-bench Labour MSPs listened to that speech. The Tories have asked the Executive to be more considered about amendment 59, but not because they oppose it. In fact, I am sure that, after they listen to the evidence, they will support the amendment because it is about the right to manage, as the minister said.

Amendment 59 is about giving chief fire officers the ability to close and merge stations and to reduce staff without proper public scrutiny or appeal. As I said, I am sure that, after hearing various representations on the amendment, the Tories will be convinced and will support it, because ideologically they believe in such measures.

However, the Tories are opposing amendment 59 because of the Executive's completely underhand and devious methods. The Fire Brigades Union has referred to the amendment as a "ludicrous, backhanded manoeuvre". Furthermore, the chairman of the FBU in Scotland has said:

"I am stunned by the arrogance of the Scottish Executive ... It is a scandal which beggars belief."

Members have mentioned the Executive's consultation document on the fire service in Scotland. On page 5, it says:

"The Executive recognises that as a third driver the key to strong quality local services remains a shared sense of direction amongst those who work within the fire service and those who are responsible for it".

Quite clearly, the chamber is faced with an amendment that has been sneaked in and will allow the closure of fire stations and a reduction in the number of fire service employees in the name of the right to manage. If the Executive has absolute confidence in amendment 59, it should subject it to proper scrutiny. If it thinks that the amendment is necessary, it should allow it to be re-examined in the proper place, which is the Local Government Committee. Members will then be able to hear evidence from representatives who oppose the provision.

Quite frankly, the deputy minister has misled Parliament today. Andy Kerr has also misled Parliament, because he has said several times that the Executive has consulted on the issue. However, when I asked where in the consultation document it says that section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 will be repealed, there was no answer. Mr Kerr later told us to look at a particular page that refers to the idea that the 1947 act needs to be amended. However, there is no mention of section 19. The FBU recognises that the 1947 act must be amended, because it is an old piece of legislation that needs to be updated. A risk-based fire service must be introduced. However, I repeat that the consultation document does not mention section 19.

The minister has misled Parliament and is about to show his utter contempt not just for the Parliament but for the FBU and the men and women who risk their lives daily to deliver our fire service. That is why I appeal to Parliament to reject amendment 59. If the amendment is to be reintroduced, let it be reintroduced properly and discussed, debated and scrutinised, not dealt with by a back-handed Executive manoeuvre.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

A great deal of artificial indignation has been expressed about amendment 59. We need to consider what amendment 59 is about, not what people want to pretend it is about. The amendment is about giving more powers to local government and local fire boards. Locally elected people would have the final decisions. The amendment is about taking powers away from Scottish ministers. If John McAllion and Tommy Sheridan are right and it is true that the amendment is about ministers wanting to close fire stations and make firemen redundant, where is the protection from ministers who have that power now? They will still be able to do that. It is absolute nonsense to say that that is what the amendment is about.

Amendment 59 is about moving the fire service on to the footing that the police service has been on for years. It used to be that Scottish ministers had the final say in the establishment of the police service. That did us very little good in Fife, where our police establishment was stuck at a low level for donkey's years because Tory ministers at the time refused to increase it. It is not in the interests of local government, fire services or police services that Scottish ministers should have the final say.

I ask the SNP members who they think should be responsible for the fire service. Do they think that it should be locally elected councils and fire boards? Do they think that Scottish ministers should be responsible for the fire service? If the SNP wants a national fire service, it should argue for that. Who is best placed to determine the best level of fire service cover in an area? Is it locally elected councillors and members of fire boards or is it Scottish ministers? To be frank, I would prefer to trust locally elected councillors to even the good words of Peter Peacock or Hugh Henry. Who is more accountable to the local community for decisions about fire services and whether a fire station should be kept open? Is it locally elected councillors or is it Hugh Henry and Peter Peacock working at the centre? Locally elected councillors are clearly more accountable; I support any system that gives more power to local government.

I believe in local government, local democracy and local accountability. Amendment 59 seeks to deliver more local government, local accountability and local democracy and I support it.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

It is clear that Iain Smith believes in the right of everyone to be consulted except the Scottish Parliament and the people who are involved in the issue. His was the most disgraceful speech today, apart from the minister's.

I do not want to use unparliamentary language, but the minister's response to Alasdair Morgan was not economical with the truth; it was contrary to the truth. Because he is a former Deputy Minister for Children and Education, he knows that there is a procedure through which school closures must in certain circumstances be referred outwith a local authority area. That was the answer he should have given to Alasdair Morgan, but he gave an answer that did not mention that, which was wrong of him.

It was equally wrong of the minister to lodge amendment 59 in the way that he did. There are two issues—timing and process. I concur with what Tommy Sheridan and John McAllion said. The issue might well require to be attended to, but the moment to attend to it is not in the middle of sensitive negotiations. To do so—I concur with my friend Tricia Marwick—is a deliberately provocative action. No doubt the Scottish Executive was told to take such action, so it has taken it, but it is extremely foolish to take such action at this time and it is more foolish to take that action by breaking the established procedures of the Parliament. That was doubly wrong and it will be doubly felt in Scotland by the FBU.

In the normal legislative process of the Parliament, the FBU expects, and has the right, to be consulted on such a change. As convener of the Public Petitions Committee, Mr McAllion was already receiving approaches from the FBU for the Parliament to consider the matter. Mr Peacock can still take the step of referring amendment 59 back to the Local Government Committee and allowing those who are directly involved to be consulted, as the Parliament must do, according to its procedures.

All that the minister has to do at the end of the debate is agree that amendment 59 and the amendments that are consequential on it should go back to the Local Government Committee for consultation. We would then be able to hear from the FBU, from the fire officers, from local authorities and from those who are deeply concerned about their safety. We can hear from people like Iain Smith, who want power to be closer to the people. We can hear from those people properly by scrutinising the amendments, but the minister seeks to prevent that scrutiny. There has been a failure in respect of timing and there has been a failure of process.

To add insult to injury, the argument that was presented by the minister and parroted by Sylvia Jackson is, in a sense, that if someone does not notice sleight of hand, they deserve all that comes to them. That is an appalling way to treat the Parliament and it suggests that the job of ministers is to indulge in trickery so that the elected members of the Parliament do not notice what is going on. In such circumstances, ministers could get away with anything.

Thank goodness there is an election on 1 May because—[Interruption.] I see that Jamie Stone is waving—he is the epitome of a turkey voting for an early Christmas. The reality of the situation is that a Government that believes that it can not only survive but flourish as a result of trickery is a Government whose time has run out.

Photo of Cathy Peattie Cathy Peattie Labour 4:45 pm, 8th January 2003

I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I am embarrassed by amendment 59 and I ask the minister to consider withdrawing it. Firefighters and folk in communities fear that agreement to amendment 59 could lead to closure of fire services and, subsequently, to loss of jobs. Although I welcome the minister's commitment to ensuring that a requirement for full consultation will be in the guidance, I ask him to take that further in order to ensure that consultation involves stakeholders, people in communities and people who are really concerned about the decision on amendment 59.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

Amendment 59 contains a certain amount of sense. As Iain Smith said, measures to decentralise and give more local control are a good thing, and if the regulations insist on adequate consultation, that will be a step in the right direction. However, as other members have said, the way in which the measure has been introduced is absolutely unacceptable. If there was previously consultation, why was not the measure included in the bill, or at least in an amendment at stage 2?

There is no excuse for lodging such an amendment now, other than to parrot what is being done at Westminster. The Procedures Committee will have to consider carefully this business of parachuting in absolutely new measures at stage 3. It is totally unacceptable and subjects the Parliament to ridicule.

To be cynical about it, if someone has a really dodgy proposition, there is some excuse for trying to sneak it in when nobody will notice. However, if someone has a perfectly straightforward and—as I believe amendment 59 is—quite honourable proposition, they make the most awful blunder if they try to sneak it in in a way that people object strongly to. The debate is then all about the way in which that was done, rather than about the merits of a proposal that might be quite good. The lodging of amendment 59 is the most extraordinary blunder.

As a distinguished colleague in another party said to me a few minutes ago, the lodging of amendment 59 is the worst example of abuse of Executive power in the duration of this Parliament—that is not the way that the Government should carry on. I will not support governments or executives or whatever they like to call themselves that behave in that way. It is absolutely counter-democratic and counter to how most members believe we should do things.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Like Cathy Peattie, I had not intended to contribute to this part of the proceedings, but having listened to the debate I wish to make a short speech.

The main issue is not whether the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 is right or wrong; the issue is the need to debate and scrutinise that repeal. I dispute one of Donald Gorrie's points: the issue is not parity with Westminster. I understand that Westminster yesterday held its second reading of the Local Government Bill, so the repeal was considered at that stage. At least the opportunity to debate the issue is available at Westminster.

From speaking to Labour members, I think that there is slight confusion. Will the minister clarify in his summing-up whether the Local Government Committee scrutinised the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 at stage 2 or whether wider fire service and modernisation issues were discussed? If that committee did not scrutinise the repeal at stage 2, we must ask why not, given that the consultation document was published early last year.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I assure the member that the Local Government Committee did not see the amendment at stage 1, at stage 2 or any other time. There has been no consultation. The first knowledge of the amendment was when it was published in the business bulletin on Monday.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

I thank the member for that comment. I hope that that clarifies the situation for any Labour members who think that the repeal was scrutinised.

Just before the recess, we had a good members' business debate on the firefighters' dispute. During that debate, some members asked—rightly—that we be careful with language, actions and other matters, so that the negotiations were not adversely affected by anything that was said in the chamber. This last-minute amendment—amendment 59—does not help the process of reaching agreement in that dispute. Whether the repeal of section 19 is right or wrong is not the issue. In the middle of an industrial dispute, amendment 59 is, to say the least, inflammatory.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

As Elaine Smith said, the matter is not whether the amendment is good or bad; rather, it is about the fact that the procedure that was used is shabby. We have an interesting precedent for consultation and we have a new meaning for consultation. In the future, it will apparently be fair to include in a consultation document reference to possible intentions to amend an act of Parliament. Thereafter, when a proposal is produced to amend any section of that act, it will be fair to say that that general reference to the act means that people have been consulted on that proposal.

We have been told that because the First Minister said that he would take an early legislative opportunity to introduce the proposal, we should have jumped up the day after he said that—on 20 December, would you believe—to make representations. However, nobody believed that the definition of an early legislative opportunity was the lodging of an amendment two days before stage 3 of a bill that does not refer to the subject.

John McAllion was right to mention all the people at Westminster and all the opportunities that exist there to scrutinise the equivalent proposal for England. Even Scottish members of that Parliament have more opportunity to scrutinise English legislation than we have to scrutinise our legislation. Moreover, the House of Lords has more opportunity for scrutiny than we have. Unelected and appointed people in England have more opportunity to scrutinise their legislation than we have to scrutinise ours. That says it all.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

The Executive has heard the debate and I urge it to tak tent of what has been said and, for the Parliament's sake, to make a move before the vote to refer amendment 59 to the Local Government Committee.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

We have listened carefully to the points about procedure that members of all parties have made and I have no doubt that ministers and members will reflect on those points. However, I want to separate the process point from the points of substance. Several members expressed concerns about the process but nonetheless indicated support for the measure. At the end of the day that is what is important in relation to how we take forward this particular measure. Very few opportunities are available for us to do that.

I want to reflect on a number of the comments that have been made. I will start with those that were made by John McAllion.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

No. I have a very short time and I want to make progress. I was very generous with interventions earlier in the debate.

John McAllion made a point about timing. One of the reasons why the amendment was lodged when it was lodged is that—notwithstanding points to which I will soon refer about the consultation that the Executive undertook on the issue, which the Executive does not believe it undertook in secret—it would have been quite wrong to proceed on the matter prior to discovering whether the Bain report supported the general measures that are contained in amendment 59. Had the Executive proceeded with its intention to pursue those measures and subsequently found ourselves out of step with the Bain report when it came out in the middle of December, we would have put ourselves in an extraordinarily difficult position. That is why the Executive reserved its position on the issue until the publication of the Bain report. I will move on to pick up on the points that the First Minister made about that.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Where in the consultation document is section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 mentioned?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Anyone who is familiar with such matters who looks at paragraph 47 on page 18 of the consultation document will see that the Executive makes it explicit that it recommends that the Fire Service Act 1947 be amended to reflect changes. I make the point that that part of the document is all about section 19 of the 1947 act. People who now claim to have knowledge of the matter should have been aware of that at the time.

Notwithstanding the serious points that I have made, I regret that the issue has today been picked up as it has by the SNP in particular, and by the SSP. Those parties, in a modern form of political alchemy, have tried to make fire where there is no smoke. They have attributed to the Executive motives that relate to some central Government agenda to close fire stations, but there is simply no such agenda. If members believe that there is a central Government conspiracy to close fire stations, why on earth are ministers giving up powers in relation to such decisions? Iain Smith made that point. We are doing the opposite of what would be required of such an agenda.

John McAllion made the point that there is some explicit financial pressure in relation to these matters that would force an agenda of fire service closures, but that is simply not the case. The fact of the matter is that the grant to support the fire service is growing year on year; in fact, we have recently made special provisions that will allow fire authorities to carry money between years. We are also supporting them in a variety of ways in relation to pension funds and so on. A lot of financial support is going into the fire services to try to prevent the scenario that has been suggested today from happening.

I want to address the suggestion that we have somehow sneaked in amendment 59. I will repeat a point that I made earlier: in response to Tommy Sheridan's question, I said that we flagged up the question about change in paragraph 47 of the consultation document. As I said, the SNP and SSP were so concerned about the matter that they made no comment on that point whatever; indeed, even the Fire Brigades Union did not raise the issue when it wrote to the Executive. We debated the subject on 15 May 2002, but SNP members who spoke in the debate and its front-bench spokespersons—who are the most knowledgeable people on the subject—did not express any concerns about that matter of principle.

The First Minister—not, as Mike Russell described, using some sleight of hand—told the Parliament that there would be a repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Far from using sleight of hand, the First Minister said that at the premier point of the week during First Minister's question time. He made it clear to the Parliament that the Executive would take an early opportunity to repeal section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. We are not talking about a measure that was hidden or sneaked in; it was declared openly to the Parliament, which was given the opportunity to ask questions. Indeed, Tricia Marwick raised that point but she failed to follow up on it.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

The accusations that we are preparing the way in that manner are simply not true; the opposite is the case. We want to see a stronger fire service throughout Scotland because we respect what the fire service does in communities throughout the country. We want to see that service being more effective in dealing with the problems in communities. We want to remove central control and diminish central influence and those aims are not in line with some kind of conspiracy theory. We want to devolve power to local areas and to trust local leaders to make the right decisions locally. We also want there to be local consultation.

I want to pick up on the point that Cathy Peattie rightly made that it is important for us to have proper local consultation when change is proposed at local level. That consultation must be thorough and it must involve people. There is a lot of experience of how such consultation should be done in, among others, education circles. We will issue guidance on those matters to ensure that local authorities and joint fire boards have regard to such matters. We need to ensure that full public consultation and democratic scrutiny take place.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 5:00 pm, 8th January 2003

With respect to John McAllion, I have not given way to other members and do not think that I should give way on the point that I am making.

The measures are entirely consistent with the rest of the bill, which is about removing central prescription and constraints on local authorities. The issue is about giving more local freedoms and trusting local leaders to be accountable locally for their actions. Local leaders should take people along with them, consult and make decisions that are right for their communities and not to be subject to the silly provisions whereby the fire chief in Grampian, for example, must come to the Executive for ministerial approval to move an aerial from the top of his building to another building within his command. That is absurd in the modern day. We do not want a situation whereby people in Oban must come to us to try to upgrade a fire station from retained to full time. Such things should be done locally through local decision making, which is what we seek. The rest of the bill makes similar provisions.

We are repealing compulsory competitive tendering, giving more local freedom, involving the fire service in community planning and ensuring that its influence will be increased. There is a new power to advance well-being in local areas. We trust local people to get on with things locally and to be accountable. We are abolishing section 94 controls on local authorities, which will give them freedom and allow them to trade more locally. We are also removing section 171 controls on economic development powers and so on.

Amendment 59 is entirely consistent with the spirit of the bill, with provisions in the rest of the bill and with measures that have been taken across the Executive. For example, it is intended that changes will be made in relation to the Schools (Scotland) Code 1956, because it is ancient. The amendment is about making the fire service consistent with the police service, which the Conservatives changed some years ago. We have made a series of provisions throughout the Executive to remove controls on local authorities.

The issue is about local authorities and local managers managing. It is about local decision makers taking decisions locally. It is about removing ministerial powers and archaic practices. There is not a threat; rather, there is an opportunity for more responsive local management, more local accountability and full democratic scrutiny at local level in exactly the way that Cathy Peattie described. That is how things should be. I urge the Parliament to agree to amendment 59.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

The question is, that amendment 59 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 4

For: Alexander, Ms Wendy, Baillie, Jackie, Barrie, Scott, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Chisholm, Malcolm, Curran, Ms Margaret, Eadie, Helen, Ferguson, Patricia, Finnie, Ross, Fitzpatrick, Brian, Gillon, Karen, Godman, Trish, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Dr Sylvia, Jackson, Gordon, Jamieson, Cathy, Jamieson, Margaret, Jenkins, Ian, Kerr, Mr Andy, Lamont, Johann, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Mr Kenneth, MacKay, Angus, Macmillan, Maureen, Martin, Paul, McAveety, Mr Frank, McCabe, Mr Tom, McConnell, Mr Jack, McLeish, Henry, McMahon, Mr Michael, McNeil, Mr Duncan, McNeill, Pauline, McNulty, Des, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Peacock, Peter, Radcliffe, Nora, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Scott, Tavish, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Iain, Stephen, Nicol, Stone, Mr Jamie, Thomson, Elaine, Wallace, Mr Jim, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan
Against: Adam, Brian, Aitken, Bill, Brown, Robert, Campbell, Colin, Craigie, Cathie, Crawford, Bruce, Cunningham, Roseanna, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Fabiani, Linda, Fergusson, Alex, Fraser, Murdo, Gallie, Phil, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Gorrie, Donald, Grahame, Christine, Hamilton, Mr Duncan, Harding, Mr Keith, Harper, Robin, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Mr Adam, Johnstone, Alex, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, Maclean, Kate, Marwick, Tricia, Matheson, Michael, McAllion, Mr John, McGrigor, Mr Jamie, McGugan, Irene, McIntosh, Mrs Lyndsay, McLeod, Fiona, McLetchie, David, Monteith, Mr Brian, Morgan, Alasdair, Mundell, David, Munro, John Farquhar, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Quinan, Mr Lloyd, Robison, Shona, Russell, Michael, Scanlon, Mary, Scott, John, Sheridan, Tommy, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Mrs Margaret, Stevenson, Stewart, Sturgeon, Nicola, Swinney, Mr John, Tosh, Mr Murray, Ullrich, Kay, Wallace, Ben, Welsh, Mr Andrew, White, Ms Sandra, Wilson, Andrew, Young, John
Abstentions: Butler, Bill, Peattie, Cathy

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

The result of the division is: For 56, Against 56, Abstentions 2.

Like Presiding Officers around the world, I am obliged to cast my vote for the status quo. The bill as published was the status quo and amendment 59 would change it. I therefore vote against amendment 59.

Amendment 59 disagreed to.